Cultivating a future
Growing Sustainable Communities
St Mary’s University College, Waldegrave Road, Strawberry Hill, London UK
I think that there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period when it seems that something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself – while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.
Vaclev Havel, President Czech republic, speech in Philadelphia, June 1994
3.3 billion people now live in urban environments, by 2030 this is estimated to increase to 5 billion of a global population predicted to peak at around 9 billion mid-century . The dominant narrative of the modern urban world that forms many of the conditions in the cities we inhabit has emerged from the industrial era, and this narrative is promoted and maintained through an industrial and utilitarian mode of education. In 2010, the human race changed from being predominantly rural to being predominantly urban. Correspondingly, we can now claim to be an industrial, human centric, urban species. This industrialisation shapes our economies, our societies and our cultures, and its language of improvement and effectiveness largely determines how we collectively think and act. But its utility is showing signs of fatigue; simultaneously with this rise in human population, we are witnessing an unprecedented collapse in our global ecosystem and dysfunction in our existing human systems of education, health, politics, economics, and agriculture. The established linear capitalist model seems no longer sufficient to provide for a changing reality, it suggests that the way we relate to our world is outdated, destructive and unsustainable, our solutions are predictable and short term, and pathologically selfish.
What happens next? A narrative of despair, or a narrative of hope? Is it the best of times, or is it the worst of times?
In this paper I will argue that this largely depends upon how and if we can we learn to live more sustainably in our built landscapes and communities around the planet. That, I suggest, is an educational challenge, of how to respond to a crisis that is real and transparent for many, and opaque for others.
A measure of our action
What is the measure of our collective action? For many industrialised nations the sum of our activity boils down to Gross National Product (GNP), an economic value; in the Kingdom of Bhutan the sum of collective worth is measured as Gross National Happiness, a well-being value; in China the government have recently announced a national Talent Plan, an education and skills value.
I want to suggest in this paper that while all of these different forms of measure are of importance, they are trumped by one single overarching value that functions universally as a coherent measure and concern, that of ecological sustainability . The reasoning behind this suggestion is that all our technologies, sciences, arts and crafts are reduced to nothing if ecological systems upon which we depend cease to function (Berry 2006). It is therefore a significant, if not the significant educational question, how we educate ourselves as a species to establish the conditions which are conducive for life on earth. At the present time, I think this is not something we have established as a foundation for our actions, and consequently, our trajectory of development is fundamentally unsustainable.
The focus on establishing sustainable conditions has been an international concern for some time, under the guise of ‘sustainable development.’ Sustainable development is a term first used by the United Nations in the Brundtland Commission (1987) which coined what has become the often-quoted definition as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Sustainable development ties together concern for the carrying capacity of natural systems with the social challenges facing humanity. The field of sustainable development is broken into three constituent parts: environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and sociopolitical sustainability.
Despite its widespread use, the idea of sustainable development is not without its critics. James Lovelock’s (2006, 2009) recent work challenged the premise of sustainable development by arguing, ‘Two hundred years ago, when change was slow or non-existent, we might have had time to establish sustainable development, or even have continued for a while with business as usual, but now is much too late, the damage has already been done (p.3/4).’ Lovelock makes a compelling case of the failings of the scientific community to confront the practical realities of the evidence that they have gathered, suggesting that ‘as a cosy, friendly club of specialists who follow their numerous different stars, they are wonderfully productive but never certain and always hampered by the persistence of incomplete world-views’ (ibid).
We might apply Lovelock’s critique across every sector of our societies, but it would seem to have particular resonance when applied to educational policy and practice, and of our own ICSEI community. Education and schooling deal daily with uncertainty and incompleteness, but the education and schooling system could not be more differently conceived, based as it is upon certainties and business as usual despite evidence to the contrary. I suggest that it is this approach to education that is now causing us so many problems in our schools. Education is wedded to the industrial economic model, measured through GNP, it perpetuates the capitalist system through which we create citizens in the form of consumers, reliant upon continuous economic and industrial growth. This, the old order, has crumbled, its financial system is in tatters (Soros 2008), and its associated institutions are in varying degrees of crisis. We continue to operate schools in a way that suggests there is no alternative, yet we fail to see that the damage in many schools is already done, the old formula is redundant. Instead, we need to imagine a future beyond the existing order of things. This is the basis of a new set of measures, where the effort is focused upon a need to transform the whole idea of education as a preparation of our communities for sustainable living.
If we consider the role of education in this way, we can explore it on economic, cultural, personal and societal terms, through the lens of how we relate to our planet. Ecological Sustainability emphasizes metrics that establish the conditions to maintain the diversity of life as the basis of productivity, so:
• society must have the capability and resilience to solve and preferably prevent its major problems in a timely fashion (equity is one contributing factor)
• society's aggregate use of resources and land must be ultra-frugal
• material flows into and out of society must not systematically increase
(The previous two conditions require a closed-cycle economy, de-materialisation, and geographical containment/land efficiency)
• the human population must be sustainable
• actions must be timely and at an adequate scale.
To establish these capabilities people need to be able to solve and prevent major problems in a timely fashion, so some formative conditions might include:
• honesty / not corruption
• participatory action
• diverse and constant experimentation
• inclusive, caring, cohesive, tolerant communities
• critical skills of analysis and reflection
• creative and skilled processes of socialisation
• anticipatory abilities, future scoping and pattern understanding
• conservation of valuable aspects of present and past
• commitment to the achievement of the social good and collective well-being
• ability to give adequate time to civic activity and community
• adequate resource and equipment to ensure that the civic infrastructure, knowledge and skills are maintained and enhanced
• A political system/s which can achieve these objectives.
This is a major educational undertaking, but as we can see, elements of our existing educational system are already present in such goals. What is perhaps different is the focusing instrument of ecological need, and it is this, as Joanna Macy (2010) argues, that can be understood as the essential adventure for our time - a shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization. This is a re-evaluation of how we live together on a grand scale. She writes, ‘People are recognising that our needs cannot be met without destroying our world, We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs. Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now. Whether or not it is recognized by corporate-controlled media, the Great Turning is a reality. Although we cannot know yet if it will take hold in time for humans and other complex life forms to survive, we can know that it is under way. And it is gaining momentum, through the actions of countless individuals and groups around the world. To see this as the larger context of our lives clears our vision and summons our courage’ (ibid).
A climate of change
Both Macy and Lovelock argue that we need to establish the conditions for suitable human response in keeping with the environmental disequilibrium we face, and use this to equip ourselves for a very different kind of collective future, something I will return to later in this paper.
First it might be useful to briefly take note of the environmental context to which I am referring. John Beddington the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser recently warned of difficult times ahead, to which government needed to begin to respond; where climate change, energy shortages, food shortages, water depletion all converge to create the ‘perfect storm of environmental and economic collapse’ (Beddington 2009). These observations are not reserved to scientific commentators, within the corporate world, Lloyds of London (2010) reported that the idea of business as usual is no longer a feasible way to respond to the set of global ecological challenges. In their annual analysis of risks to business, the Lloyds Group (ibid) specifically identified water, food, energy and population as themes that have to be tackled to be attended to over the next fifty years. They comment:
Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh and therefore suitable to sustain human life. As our populations continue to become participants in the global economy, one of the first resources that will peak, where demand outstrips supply, will be water. The combined challenge of urbanisation and climate change will increase the strain on water resources, we have to learn to reduce our water useage, and manage our water much more effectively.
It is estimated that there will be a further 70-100% increase in food production required to feed an expected population of 9.1 billion people by 2050 . Recent poor growing conditions and mass parasitic events in 2008 aligned to prompt a food crisis in the developing world. Between 2006 and 2008, the average world prices for rice rose by 217%, wheat rose by 136%, corn rose by 125% and soyabeans rose by 107% . The price rises meant people could not afford to buy their basic foodstuffs. The result was food riots and civil disorder on an unprecedented scale across many parts of the developing world.
The demand for energy across the planet is expected to rise in keeping with the rise in population. This comes at a time when the supply of recoverable gas is expected to last until 2030 at the latest. In a similar way we have seen with water and food, the greater number of people participating in a global economy focused upon growth will substantially increase the supply shortfall. Added to this is the recognition that fossil fuels contribute to climate change, this challenges fossil fuels likelihood of being a sustainable source of energy in the future if we are to ensure that we reduce carbon emissions.
For the first time ever in human history more people live in urban environments than in rural . Since 1987, China has witnessed 400 million new urbanites through economic modernisation, and it expects a further 300 million people to move from the country to the city from 2005 to 2020. To accommodate this vast number of new city dwellers, a building programme of immense proportion has started, creating 400 new cities by 2020. There are over 220 cities in China with populations of more than one million and eight mega cities, with more than ten million residents . There are only 35 such cities in Europe. What this increase in urban living represents is uncharted territory for the human race, a whole new level of communal relationships, and a significant challenge to the already stretched logistical and management services that operate across our societies.
Transition: The Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stone
In such complex and challenging circumstances, an economy that is governed by desire for profit, rather than collective planning for human need is going to be increasingly unsustainable. What is perfectly clear (see for example Berry 1996, Brown 2004, Macy 2006) is that even if we are not just yet at the endgame, we are indeed in a significant period of existential and physical disequilibrium within our taken for granted systems of social and economic organization. As Havel’s quote at the start of this paper emphasizes, as one set of circumstances begins to fragment, a new set of circumstances begins to rise; such is the way of evolutionary change. The question is what might those be, and how well will they facilitate the required conditions for ecological sustainability?
What is also clear is an underlying assumption that we will find the appropriate mode of instruction to facilitate the move from one way of living to a whole new level of living. This signals a radical overhaul of how we modify the destructive tendencies of capitalist consumer society. As Tim Jackson from the New Economics Foundation observes, we need new models of learning that render the existing ways of seeing our complex reality as obsolete (Jackson 2010), primarily because the existing industrial models have generated the conditions that have created the global ecological crisis.
The connection between the natural story and the human story therefore come down to past, present and future measures of balance and new ideas of what we call ‘growth’. Instead of simply measuring economic output, an emphasis on ecological sustainability raises the bar for communities to redefine their presence on the earth. Our defining questions become questions of harmony; Do the human and natural narratives co-exist harmoniously? Or are they in crisis? Do we currently have the wisdom to make appropriate judgments to rectify any imbalance? Do we need to learn new things to move forward?
Scientific evidence over the last decade is increasingly converging on the view that climate change is evident across the planet , yet on its own, we have seen, people do not respond to such data. It is in itself, an indicator that our relationship with the earth is far from harmonious and at a sufficiently significant state of disequilibrium to consider how we might change track. These concerns are by no means wishful thinking, even putting aside climate challenges, as Lloyds (2010) indicate, the convergence of water, food, and energy challenges are sufficient to focus the collective mind to ask can we do this differently? Defining how to interpret what we might do, and how we might proceed are not simple responses to circumstance, they need reformulating on the grand scale (Berry 1996, Macy 2006).
My own take on this problem was first formulated in the early 1980’s (Clarke 1983). Since that time I have been interested in the ways that human community can connect through education for collective action, self-realisation and social change. A decade ago (Clarke 2000), the school-based learning community concept was formulated on the notion that its integration in the education system would stimulate a progressive and systemic redesign. Reflecting on the earlier work on the learning community I think that too much faith was put on the institution of the school as an agent of social change and too little recognition that school is in fact an agent of social conformity. Despite many valiant efforts, it is clear that the learning community concept was in this regard, fundamentally flawed. It remains too insular, too managerially conceived and too self-referential to modify the dominant narrative of reform.
Instead, drawing upon lessons learnt in formulating learning communities (Jackson 2006) I have been developing both practically and theoretically, the idea of Sustainable Community. This involves stepping beyond the constraints of the school environment and connecting to the wider community, service and business sectors, then reconnecting schools into these new configurations. In doing this I have become interested in the way in which we might use the metaphor of growing, literally and metaphorically, as a focusing idea to develop our communities. Growing community through place, relationship, action and interest (Clarke 2009) connects people, idea, place and action in ways that the earlier idea of single site based solutions seemed to inhibit. In turn, a multi-site set of activities provides a range of different ways for people to generate assets that enhance the capability (Sen 2000) of their communities to become more resilient to change. This includes responding to cultural, social, ecological, economic and spiritual needs, but in this particular example they have a specific connection to cultivating food within urban and rural communites and an examination of how such cultivation generates work, health and well-being. The idea of the singular community is less important here than that of the connected communities that pursue issues of interest, action, place and enquiry that are commonly held. The connection between these different communities of practice (Wenger 1988) comes through ecological sustainability, looking at new forms of building for sustainable living and of course, exploring how we educate all members of the community to begin to participate in what Senge (2000) calls ‘metanoia’ - a shift of mind and practice in response to a changed environment.
Underpinning the actions of the Sustainable Communities is the realization that that all the crises that I have described earlier, are the result of a schism. As such they are simply representations of symptoms of a deeper malaise, the fracture of the relationship between ourselves and our earth, the individual and the universal, brought about by industrialized capitalism. It is the factors caused by industrial production, and the system of ownership that has maintained and manipulated human society to collude with the violation of nature in the process of generating financial profit. But the relentless drive for this profit on a global scale is coming up against planetary limits now and perhaps this is best understood as the fundamental dissonance that is being recognized and responded to. The Sustainable Community experiments with the ideas of consciousness shift, from the ego-centric perspective we have at present which has accelerated as the industrial era developed to global proportions, to the eco-centric position we might adopt of we are to realign with our earth. This transition from ego to eco is our aide memoire, it enables us to define and then develop strategic responses in each and every aspect of our lives.
The shift from ego to eco is more than a series of developmental steps, it is the metanoia, from the linear to the holistic, from the instrumental to the emancipatory, from the singular to the collective. It signals the potential for transformation of education and educational systems from the managed to the living systems aligned within an ecological competence, what has been called elsewhere an eco-capability (Orr 1994, Capra 2010, Clarke 2009). This is at once an intensely personal issue, and a universal issue. It relates to what one might do oneself in response to climate related change, and it expands to what we might do as a species. As Swimme observes, choice of direction in this matter is both singular and universal, it has both personal and cosmological consequences: ‘Unless we live our lives with at least some cosmological awareness, we risk collapsing into tiny worlds. For we can be fooled into thinking that our lives are passed on political entities, such as the state or a nation, or that the bottom line concerns in life have to do with economic realities of consumer life styles. In truth, we live in the midst of immensities, and we are intrically woven into an immense cosmic drama.’ (Swimme 1996:60).
Grappling with immensity, whilst doing the day-to-day things, is at the hand, heart and mind of the problem in cultivating Sustainable Community. It translates itself into the practicalities of daily life, How do we organise our world? How do we educate our citizens, How do we feed, water and clothe ourselves? How do we keep warm or cool? And critically, How do we ensure the sustainable continuation of modern civilisation and pass it on to future generations in a better state than we received it? This is the gritty stuff of living together but doing so in non-destructive ways, it forms a new curriculum of life and for life, concerned with how we make our places work for our collective needs. In the past we have built these environments within an industrial mindset, and our schools served this agenda. Now we now have to make a move to incorporate the natural into the overall design so that our actions can build resilient communities, robust enough to cope with the changing climate on a warming Earth.
From Instrumental to Emancipatory
To establish an eco-capability, which is what I think this distills into, requires knowledge. For example, we already know that the consequences of climate change and pollution are going to span not decades but centuries in to the future because of the biological characteristics and behaviours of many of the pollutants we have created, and the expansive time frames that carbon science functions within. Similarly, it is predicted by the United Nations Population Division that at some point in this century, probably mid-century, the human population will peak, we also know that many of the resources we currently use in vast amounts are starting to become less easily available and we will have to begin to consider in the near future the prospect of radical new recycling methods if we are to maintain a viable supply of many of the vital component elements of modern life. We know that the genie is out of the bottle for a variety of particularly nasty ways in which we can poison, destroy and damage life on earth, including our own civilization. Knowledge of how to undertake mass destruction is now a permanent feature of daily news items, it is an embedded part of human consciousness, we have sown the seeds of what could become civilization collapse (Brown 2009) and we already have evidence of failing states (Chomsky 2006 ) places such as Somalia, Rwanda, and Iraq. Knowing that we generate structural conditions for failure begins to open us to the possibility of structural conditions for successful alternatives, by understanding unsustainability, we can develop capability to look at new ways of proceeding.
One example of this comes in the manufacturing industries. These are undergoing a radical overhaul as pressure to conform to carbon reduction schemes begins to modify their operational practices. As a result of revised design strategies we know how we might establish economically cyclical approaches to products, where waste from one part of the cycle becomes useful material for another (Cradle to Cradle economics and design methods – McDonough 2002), or establish conditions for a Zero carbon City (Malmo in Sweden is the closest example yet of a European city that is moving in this direction, and Tianjin in China is gearing itself to be the first eco-city in the world with a zero carbon status). We know that Permaculture serves as a tried and tested planning and growing system which can be established in almost any part of the planet and generates a high yield and a resilient and sustainable food source (Holmgren 2002, Mollison 1988). However, this knowledge needs to be more systemically available and integrated into the human infrastructure, and one impediment to this has been that until quite recently such solutions have been considered counter-cultural, they now have to adopt new means of connecting with the mainstream to convey their core messages.
This is particularly important when we come to consider the way that education might play its part in a transformational narrative from an industrial to an eco-economy (Kelly 2010). Fundamentally, the transition required is:
• a shift of hand (doing things sustainably),
• a shift of heart (feeling the need to do things sustainably), and
• a shift of mind (thinking things sustainably).
As education has increasingly attended only to the mind, and an industrial mind at that, it is clear that much too much emphasis is placed on human centric solutions. It is not enough to just facilitate change in behaviour, attention has to be given to values and consciousness as well.
For example, we cannot escape the fact that we live our lives in the cycle of birth and death, growth and decay. Facing up to this reality is going to have to become a part of the restored narrative of our century, a realisation that we are of the earth. If we are moving ever more towards living well in the built environment of the urban city, then we have to overcome the denial of nature as to fail to do so is likely to have catastrophic consequences for our shared urban futures, their distribution of wealth and their ability to ensure well-being, equity and social justice (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). We have not made a great start in this regard, writing of modern life Michael Cohen observes, ‘We live stress-filled lives full of traffic jams, busyness, noise, artificiality, and substitutes for the real thing. Our culture is riddled with stress and stress-related pathologies: addictions, broken marriages, violence, and greed. More than 70% of our medical problems, costing $250billion, are believed to be stress related’ (Cohen 1993). The costs become ever greater, and the solutions ever more urgent.
We have known for some time that an approach that presupposes cause and effect is an oversimplification of our complex social reality, so any response to these types of challenge has to accommodate a range of possible forms of engagement. The commonly held assumption that there is a linear correlation between knowledge, awareness and behaviour (Hannigan 1995) fails to recognize the range of human responses we tend to adopt when confronted with new and challenging information. People do not act rationally; they act emotionally, counter-intuitively, and sometimes intelligently but inappropriately. Glasser’s (2007) identified a range of responses to sustainability, corresponding closely to their level of awareness of the issues involved.
Their responses can include;
• having no idea that a potentially serious problem exists;
• honestly believing that the “problem” is a not a problem;
• denying the existence of the problem by ignoring the information or pushing it aside as unimportant (this includes an educated incapacity, an acquired or learned inability to see a problem);
• accepting the existence of the problem, but seeing it as easily surmountable;
• accepting the existence of the problem, but seeing other problems or issues as needing to take a higher priority;
• failing to generate adequate support for action; and
• taking action, but the chosen action proves to be inadequate, mismatched to the problem, or is unsuccessfully applied (Glasser 2007, p55).
Given that this happens, what might we do? I think we can step back and ask why people respond like this and then start to design ways of connecting to new ideas formulated through the Sustainable Community concept. My view is that this arises from how people have been encouraged to learn in the past. For example, if we learnt through an instrumental approach, we might assume a system where a) the approach that is adopted is already fixed and decided, b) the sequence of interventions are assumed to be understood and coherent.
This contrasts with what might happen if we use an emancipatory approach to learning. This design, takes it as given that learners need to participate in a formative and unfolding dialogue, that the design is as yet unformed and uncertain, and that through an active and engaging process of learning together people will begin to generate co-owned objectives, develop coherent and meaningful strategies in the form of concepts and practices, and begin to generate self-determined plans of action to make changes they consider are both desirable, and which will contribute to a more sustainable society as a whole (Wals & Jickling, 2002).
There is an obvious difference between existing and desired practice, but to get to the desired practice requires action, and this action is rooted in existing reality. Therefore an intermediate response was required, one which enables us to start where our communities are, and then move forward from that position. To do this we have experimented with some far reaching ‘stretch targets’ and then defined them within a familiar instrumental framework. The departure comes in what we then do to try and achieve them.
Figure 1 Setting direction and action for ecological sustainability
(system conditions) Targets
(stretch goals) Actions
Society should be ecologically sustainable. • Ecological sustainability must not be undermined by systematic:
• increases in concentrations in nature of substances that come from the earth's crust or are produced by society
• increases in the manipulation or harvesting of nature
• failure to restore the ecological basis for biodiversity and ecological productivity.
• Society must make it easy to achieve system conditions 1-3 by ensuring that:
• society has the capability and resilience to solve and preferably prevent its major problems in a timely fashion
• material flows from nature into and out of society do not increase systematically
• society's aggregate use of resources and land is ultra-frugal
• the human population does not increase systematically.
• the speed and scale of responses is adequate. • Society should aim for:
• 'zero' extinctions
• 'zero' climate damage
• 'zero' soil degradation
• 'zero' waste
• 'zero' pollution
• a 90% improvement in resource use efficiency (Factor 10) (2)
• 'zero' net greenhouse gas emissions.
• 'zero' encroachment on nature.
• 75% of land for nature. • Society should take action to:
• contain human activity (for nature) - don't encroach, boost land efficiency
• tread lightly (for nature)
• restore habitat (for nature)
• create a closed-cycle economy
• use renewable resources
• design for no toxicity (including eco-toxicity)
• protect people from environmental threats
• strive for sustainable population
• green up business
• green up lifestyles
• green up culture
• boost social and economic capability
• encourage 'ecological take-off' in the economy/society
• achieve results at a desirable speed and scale.
Recent work by Macy (2010) illustrates the possibilities of emancipatory learning as a form of community action, where the community is both localized, in the form of neighbourhood response, and collective as human community. She creates three areas of action.
One: Actions to slow the damage
Perhaps the most visible dimension of response comes through political, legislative, and legal work required to reduce the destruction. This can include direct action, blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of refusal. A few examples:
• Documenting and the ecological and health consequences and effects of the Industrial Growth Society;
• Lobbying and protesting against the World Trade Organization and the international trade agreements that endanger ecosystems and undermine social and economic justice;
• Blowing the whistle on illegal and unethical corporate practices;
• Blockading and conducting public awareness campaigns and vigils at places of ecological destruction, such as old-growth forests under threat of clear-cutting or at nuclear dumping grounds.
Work of this kind buys some time. It saves some peoples lives, and some ecosystems, species, and cultures, as well as some biodiversity, for the sustainable society to come. But it is insufficient to bring that society about on its own.
Two: Analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives
The second dimension of response is equally crucial and engages people in greater knowledge of place, action and purpose. To liberate ourselves and our planet from the damage being inflicted by the Industrial Growth Society we have to understand its dynamics. Learning about the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few, while progressively impoverishing the rest of humanity? Learning that an insatiable economic model uses our Earth as supply house and sewer? This is not a pretty picture, and it takes courage and confidence in our own common sense to look at it with realism and clarity; but people are making this happen, and are slowly demystifying the workings of the global economy. When we see how this system operates, we are less tempted to demonize the politicians and corporate CEOs who are in beholden to it. Instead, we begin to see how, despite its apparent power and dominance, our existing system is extremely fragile. This system depends upon compliance and obedience.
In addition to learning how the present system works, we are also creating structural alternatives through communities who are redefining themselves through their own actions. In countless localities across the world, like Havel’s quote, green shoots are rising up through the rubble, new social and economic arrangements are emerging. These are not waiting for the organized leadership of our national or state politicians to play catch-up with us, people are getting together, taking action in their own communities and making new sense of their own places. These actions may look marginal, but their global presence is notable and significant, they hold the seeds for the future.
Some of the initiatives that illustrate this are:
• Community growing projects – the single most radical thing communities might do is to grow substantial amounts of their own food because as they begin to do this they break their dependence on the established agribusiness and its associated services (I will return to this shortly).
• Strategies and programs for nonviolent, citizen-based defense
• Reduction of reliance on fossil and nuclear fuels and conversion to renewable energy sources at local levels through community energy companies and small scale community energy management.
Collaborative living arrangements such as co-housing and sheltered housing schemes for the less able. When integrated with community gardens, neighbourhood cooperatives, community-supported agriculture programmes, restoration and maintenance projects using restored and restructured buildings this can generate considerable adhesion and resilience to communities which were previously under stress and fracture (examples are globally based, from the USA – Wisconsin growers projects, Detroit City of Hope, to UK Incredible Edible, Project Dirt in London, to Asia Mai-Won Permaculture Community in Hong Kong, Australia CERES, Melbourne, Chennai City farms in India).
Three: Shift in Consciousness
These structural alternatives cannot embed and survive without deeply ingrained values that become normalized in order to sustain them. This is a critical educational matter. Learning must mirror what we want and how we relate to Earth and each other. They require, in other words, a profound shift in our perception of reality.
The insights and experiences arise as grief for our world, giving the lie to old paradigm notions of rugged individualism, the essential separateness of the self from others. They arise in the form of positive response to breakthroughs in scientific thought, as reductionism and materialism give way to evidence of a living quantum universe. And they arise in the resurgence of traditional knowledge and wisdom, reminding us that our world is a sacred whole, worthy of adoration and service (Berry 2006).
The many forms and ingredients of this dimension include:
• Living/Natural systems theory:
- encompassing deep ecology and the long-range ecology movement where environmental consciousness is a core aspect of understanding self and situation
• Emergence theory: the realization of letting go of old ways of seeing how we see are vital is we are to formulate new approaches to human habitation
• Spirituality: the connection of self to universal, not religious, but spiritual connectedness with other living beings
• Slow living movement, and other movements which are concerned with realizations that save us from succumbing to either panic or paralysis. They help us resist the temptation to stick our heads in the sand, or to turn on each other, for scapegoats on whom to vent our fear and rage (Macy 2010).
Other forms of response
To transcend the destructive cycle of the industrial mind we therefore need to begin to design learning that promotes the simple message of emancipation from the dominant pedagogic and consumerist model. The emancipation comes from the shift away from industrialised thinking in the form of Natural/Living Systems thinking. In Macy’s work it is defined through conscious resistance and consequent outcomes of practical action, however there are other forms of response which have taken different starting points and formulated alternative models of activity which could still be seen as forms of Sustainable Communities in that their shared point of reference is to understand how to proceed from the ego of industrialised mind, to the eco of the Natural world as mentor, design and measure.
Why might we want to learn to mimic Nature? This is not just because it is not industrial, it is because it has immense practical value for us to do so, Nature has an impressive head start on us, it has been around for 4,500 billion years, and we are the new kids on the block having barely existed for more than 195,000 years. Nature can serve as our operating system and mentor as we toddle into species adolescence, we need Natures guidance, Natures design, Natures measure, and Natures balance if our megacities make the change to becoming sustainable habitats.
Biomimicry takes the simple idea of what can nature teach us, as mentor, measure and method. It has provides a structure through which;
• learners can come to view and value the natural world; to see Nature not just as something to learn about, but as something to learn from
• to present all of the school curriculum from arts to science and humanities,
• to enhance and express creativity through design, with hands-on, minds-on, project-based activities
• to connect school subjects to one another, and school subjects to the real world beyond classroom walls using the landscape of the city, the field, the forest all of which demonstrate how life creates the conitions that are conducive for life
• to think and learn about sustainability.
Biomimicry is now a rapidly developing field, established in engineering and design industries and increasingly featured in frontier science as we learn more about how nature operates.
Cradle to cradle
Taking a similar design-based approach, the concepts which have come to form the cradle to cradle model also mimic natures operating system. Cradle to cradle is a way of thinking beyond the existing industrial design models, its principal architect William MacDonough (2004) writes: ‘Imagine a world in which all the things we make, use, and consume provide nutrition for nature and industry—a world in which growth is good and human activity generates a delightful, restorative ecological footprint. While this may seem like heresy to many in the world of sustainable development, the destructive qualities of today’s cradle-to-grave industrial system can be seen as the result of a fundamental design problem, not the inevitable outcome of consumption and economic activity. Indeed, good design—principled design based on the laws of nature—can transform the making and consumption of things into a regenerative force."
The pioneering permaculturist David Holmgren adopted a different operational starting point, an important component of Holmgren’s theory for sustainable living is focused upon survival through energy descent (see also Hopkins 2008 and the work of the transition towns movement see footnote 8b p.6), built around an assumption that the age of cheap energy derived from oil is rapidly coming to a close, and that all of our essential systems are based upon an assumed supply of cheap energy from which we have to move to a viable alternative within a couple of decades.
Growing food in community settings
In my own recent work I have been looking at ways in which we might combine these formative ideas about sustainable living and use them to develop practical examples for school and community development. This activity focuses on enquiry based approaches to learning to inform a dialogue of change focused on our own place – this might be a school yard, a street, the local health centre, or a parcel of unused land which is redefined and redeveloped as community space.
It must be noted that while I see this as absolutely focused on education for sustainable community, it is not exclusively based upon action that happens within the school site. Instead, it gets people to participate in a conversation, leading to action, which asks what a Sustainable Community might be like? The objectives, targets and actions are then nurtured around connections between people (communities of kinship, new green businesses – local food purchasing, instructional programmes for cooking and baking), their ideas (communities of interest – treading lightly – looking at the local environment and redefining how it is used through new organizational arrangements such as community charities and land asset management projects, closed cycle economics), the way they go about doing what they are keen to establish (communities of action – restoring habitats, boosting land efficiency, community supported agriculture projects) and the way this enables them to redesign their relationship with the environment, built space around them (community of place, creating recycling and renewable projects, art and creativity programmes).
Our points of reference for the dialogues we explore are developed through observation, design, maintenance, evaluation, resources, implementation, and identification of boundaries. We use a project-based approach to generate questions of method, design and measure. What has become clear in this work is that any effort guided towards growing sustainable community requires a reflective consciousness, an acknowledged feature of both Macy and Holmgren’s observations.
The deliberate design of dialogue into the process of change enables participants to steer clear of the paralysis and apathy that often results from the prevailing ‘wait and see’ attitude prevalent among many citizens in response to climate change. This avoids the paralysis of waiting until we are absolutely sure, and until there is agreement among the scientists and policy-makers about what is happening to the earth. Instead, it encourages action and enables anyone, in any situation, to be a participant in a process of engaged change. Improvement therefore has a focus. It is defined for and by the community, and is used to overcome individual and systemic procrastination. It begins to generate examples of robust alternatives; that can diffuse and challenge the argument that we can afford to continue to operate under the conditions of business as usual.
As I have already indicated, this work is not one off, but widespread and internationally connecting. Around the world there are many such examples of innovative, transitional experiments and ‘next practices’ that are breaking free of the normative underpinning of the industrial growth model, and are replacing it with a broader and more inclusive agenda that is emerging around the Sustainable Community concept. Whilst it is understood that many of these projects and initiatives are still at the margins of mainstream society, they are beginning to be noticed within mainstream culture primarily because they are highly visible, they often demonstrate community regeneration where previous efforts from centralized planning have singularly failed to galvanise public interest. Part of the success is simply because they involve people in doing things that they are motivated to want to be involved with, and as such they are evidence of people ‘doing’ rather than being ‘done to.’
However, we must ask if this way of looking at global response to ecological crisis is going to have sufficient momentum to ensure change quickly, as what happens in the next two decades (Wilson 2002). A vital part of the change is participation from the grassroots level, but this poses problems for systemic practice if we conceive of their actions within the previous mindset of transferability, as the replication of a successful scheme from one place to another is not necessarily the motivational driver behind the interests to the participants.
However, if we think of systemic transferability as an idea of interconnectedness, where viral transfer of local action, and social networking on a local to global scale can easily occur through information technology, then the problem of artificially managing the emergence of multiple localized responses is less troublesome. In fact, the method of knowledge transfer and interconnection may, as an emergent process, spread faster, embed deeper and engage more people simply because it is not orchestrated. This demonstrates an important feature of the dialogic process, that relationships and community matter more in this process of redefinition, than predetermined and transferable content matter. Our objectives, targets and actions may be formed from the old mindset, but their development and realization emerge from the practices arising from new learning about community of place, ideas, interest and kinship. What the detail reveals of these small-scale localized projects is that each is uniquely configured, suited to a particular set of circumstances that cannot be easily supplanted, transferred or handed over with a ‘how to’ manual.
What we are learning as we cultivate Sustainable Communities is that there is a deeper learning process taking place amongst people, one that is grounded in the everyday reality of peoples lives in organizations, institutions, businesses schools and communities. It is centered around relationship, how people relate to each other, to their problems, and to the natural space around them. These examples of ‘next practices’ can be extremely illuminative, not only because they can inspire and inform, but because they can serve as a source of inspiration and equally important illustrate that what people do in their own settings matters. As Paulo Freire articulated so powerfully, hope has its origins in practice, it is rooted in what people do and feel they can do, it is in the struggle. If it is not, we find inaction, people begin to feel incapable of doing things in response to ever worsening circumstances and they generate hopelessness and despair (Freire, 1992). Freire described hope as an ontological need that should be anchored in practice in order to become historical concreteness. Without hope, we are hopeless and cannot begin the struggle to change. Our experience suggests this can begin with simple, small-scale projects which have to be participatory and dialogic in design.
Education for Sustainable Living as the hybrid school
So far I have suggested that it is possible to create the conditions through which people can learn to think and act in more sustainable ways. But I have also suggested that at present we mostly educate our young people as if there were no planetary crisis, and we place far too much emphasis in our curriculum on the assumption that technology of the future can fix what we destroy of the planet in the present. In perpetuating the myth that technology can resolve the human and natural condition we maintain and reinforce the dominant narrative of our institutions, that progress is only viable if we remain loyal to the industrial mind, and the schism between ourselves and the planet is an acceptable situation. My criticism of our education systems is that they are a formative part of the industrial epoch, shaping the collective mind to ways of thinking, acting and understanding that fit the mechanism of the time. However, I think that rising from the rubble of the old order, we can reframe curricula to educate, educe, ‘to draw out’ an affinity with life (Orr 2004).
This affinity with the natural needs to be nurtured as it can provide important indicators of a new ecologically informed capability as a globally responsible citizen. As it is further designed, measured and validated, it needs to be harnessed in such a way as to begin to provide people with working definitions of what it takes to grow Sustainable Communities, in effect it needs to become a way of living, of being.
There are a range of styles of learning that help us here. Trans-disciplinary learning, transformative learning, anticipatory learning, collaborative learning, co-constructive learning and, indeed, social learning are just a few examples of methods which formulate understanding beyond the linear industrial models. These styles of learning draw from the real world, a focus on existentially relevant or ‘real’ issues essential for engaging learners in practical, embedded experiential activity, where they view learning as inevitably trans-disciplinary and even ‘trans-perspectival’ because the ideas cannot be captured coherently by a single discipline or by any single narrative position. They regard indeterminacy as a central feature of the learning process, reflecting the reality that life is emergent, not predefined, in that it is not and cannot be known exactly what will be learnt ahead of time and that learning goals are likely to shift as learning progresses, they consider learning as cross-boundary in nature in that it cannot be confined to the dominant structures and spaces that have shaped education for centuries (Wals 2010).
The above characteristics make clear that the search for Sustainable Community cannot be limited to classrooms, the company boardroom, a local environmental education center, a regional government authority, or any single service provider. Instead, Sustainable Community becomes and needs to remain a hybrid concept. It generates synergy between the multiple participants in a community and it blurrs the boundaries of what we have traditionally recognized as formal, non-formal and informal education. Opportunities for this type of learning expand with an increased permeability between units, disciplines, generations, cultures, institutions, and sectors.
As I alluded to in the opening section of this paper, when we think about cultivating a new way of learning for a sustainable world there is a need to accommodate such transformational disruptions. As Macy indicates, these may be through direct action, or as Holmgren demonstrates they may arise through change in understanding, which in turn realigns life choices. I have learnt that transformation comes primarily through people changing their relationships with their life circumstances, and feeling different about how they live their lives. As such, it is more than just instrumental action, it engages emotional response to changing circumstance. Incredible Edible shows how the activity of people across a broad demographic of our community has begun to draw attention to the possible ways a community to re-imagine a future, and school plays an important part in this process.
In our community food project Incredible Edible , we set out to establish a facility whereby people could come to the project with ideas and practical activities which worked towards the notion of ‘growing a sustainable community’. To provide a forum for these activities we posed a set of questions to our community through the local newspaper and then in a series of meetings held in the local café’s, school halls and through regular articles and press and publicity events; What kind of place do we really want to live in? How can this place (our town) be used to demonstrate new ways of thinking about community, learning and business that are more ecologically sustainable? The resulting activities included participation from all the local service sector (police, fire, ambulance, health and education and social housing). More than 150 individual community food growing sites located around the town in public spaces growing freely available food, these were often found in streets, on wasteground and on embankments which were unused. Five new orchards have been planted across town with more than 2000 fruit trees planted in the first two years including school orchards and plans for extensive re-use of school land as growing space for students and community. Schools all taking part in redesigning their playgrounds as edible schoolyards, raising chickens and at the high school establishing a CIC (Community Interest Company in partnership with Incredible Edible to manage a community fish farm and hydroponics unit on the school site. This will include a part of the site which will be used as a base for food management training, catering courses, a cafeteria, demonstration events etc. The emancipatory design has been a vital part of the programme, as we have deliberately held back from forming fixed views of how the idea of a sustainable community might be grown. The consequence of the open design has been a rapid increase in community and service participation, the programme has more than 400 active volunteers who regularly participate in the activities often self-generated that make up the programme.
Our experience, arising from the expansion of the practice arising from the Incredible Edible (Clarke 2009, 2010, 2011) programme has taught us that the basic ideas of sustainable living need not be overcomplicated. Indeed, they resonate with the everyday and encourage creative engagement, but they have to provide routes for profound change in organizational and individual behaviour. In the case of our, and many other of these hybrid projects elsewhere, our focus has been based on growing food.
What is more complex, and remains a testing matter, is how to proceed and engage with a school community in a way that enables teachers to integrate ideas about sustainable living into the curriculum (Capra 2010). As I have argued here, learning and understanding about sustainable living comes from action, from doing practical activity based on real-life problems (this is where growing food becomes a practical route to other related questions, how to make a passive solar greenhouse, how to ensure that we capture rain water for the garden, how to make and maintain fertile soil through composting and planting strategies, what to do with organic waste matter form school, how to use the intergenerational knowledge that exists within any school community through parents, grandparents and children) and seeing how sustainable living can be easily undertaken.
What is clear in the development of Incredible Edible is the importance of method, but method which emerges, evolves and enables, rather than method which predefines. In making greater sense of many of these different learning community ventures, we are beginning to establish a ‘Pattern Book’ methodology, through which some of the critical components of many projects can be examined by a diverse number of people, used as generative material to further stimulate debate and engagement.
In our own case, a set of principles have guided the ideas of the project:
a) continuous public consultation and conversation, open access
b) modelling plans / master plans and emergent possibilities
c) sustainable core concepts – cradle to cradle, permaculture, biomimicry
d) local identity
e) local resources and services – schools, churches, health service, social housing, police, fire, traders associations etc
f) indigenous needs
g) relationship with place
h) environmental impact – a continual consideration of the environmental possibilities for learning and impact of the programme, the lessons that can be learnt and the ways that the programme can connect the hand, heart and mind of the ideas of sustainable living to the community
i) efficient land use – experimenting with land and monitoring yield potential and real to generate evidence to present to the wider public audience
j) viability and visibility – being able to do things which help people to make a living, and making sure that the activities are seen.
In cultivating Sustainable Community we learn to relate and reflect the reality of where we live, and in doing this, learners come to acknowledge that we are in the main, living in far from sustainable communities. This recognizes some of the dilemmas we all face in modern life, and promotes a way of thinking about our response. This seems to be a more productive approach to adopt than simply informing students of the ecological problems we all face, but it remains controversial within the school setting because schools fundamentally remain locked to transmission, linear narratives of learning.
Our central dilemma therefore, when it comes to mainstream education, concerns how closely to align with existing practice, and how far to push the boundaries to facilitate new thinking. Moving too far, too soon, can frighten people away from taking steps forward, but too much caution will not generate the necessary creative organizational turbulence to initiate any shift of mind or practice. Therefore how to position the sustainable living agenda in such a way as it maintains the vitality and creative impetus without compromising our radical ambition is a central concern for progressive eco-literate design. It sounds ridiculously simple, but defining some principles of action based around food, creating an edible education, makes the first steps on this learning journey much easier, we all eat, therefore we all have an interest. It promotes questions: How do we use our school land-space, rooftops, window ledges as connections to the natural world? Just where does all our school food come from and can we realign this so that it is more ecologically robust as a procurement process? How much food can we grow on our own school site in partnership with our community? Why not begin to think of our school as an urban farm, a place to learn about the diversity and abundance of life?
ICSEI as a receptacle for ecological transformation?
When we stop and consider the transitions that SESI has undergone in twenty five years it is evident that our collective intelligence is the most powerful legacy of our work. This organisation has taken our ideas from the development of the person, to the group, to the team, to the school, the network, the region, the national, the international and the global systems over this time (Townsend, Clarke and Ainscow 1999).
As such, ICSEI would appear to be an ideal ambassador of these new formulations. But the epistemology and ontology that forms the collective intelligence of ICSEI reflects the industrial rather than the ecological mindset. This is generally one of the most challenging barriers to overcome in establishing any ecological capability, ICSEI like so many other organisations, is self-referential rather than trans-referential, as such it suffers what Scharmer (2009) calls ‘organisational blindspots.’
One such blindspot has been any serious consideration to date, of ecological literacy. Education as we know it is has been singularly unsuccessful at educating us for sustainable living, proof enough in the fact I am standing here talking about this issue at an event like this in January 2011. As E.O.Wilson observes, we have both the ideas and the technologies that can transform our approaches to life across the planet, but at present education in the form of business as usual is a huge impediment. A point echoed by veteran environmental commentator David Orr (2004) who says, ‘its not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.’
Searching for a certain kind of educational DNA has been a feature of the work of colleagues in the effective schools movement for more than two decades. This problem I think we have to address if we are to usefully engage with some of the ideas I am exploring in this paper concerns the way we might reconceptualise the science and metrics of our work.
Figure 2: Managed and living systems
Managed system Living system
A founding assumption taken from 19th and 20th century progress, that complex systems are predictable entities A founding assumption is that complex systems are not stable
An expectation of continuous human progress through a factory driven industrialized and technological world view where the system has to be organized and managed so that it can function Time and space are not discrete and independent and that living systems self-organise and change in response to feedback they receive from their environment but they still retain the integrity of their purpose and meaning
It requires predictable work systems and compliant, efficient workers who function within a similarly conceived workplace Work systems are emergent and networked, functioning across different time zones and different locations
It is a Newtonian view of reality where the universal truths are founded on objectivity, stability, regularity, and the world predictability It is a quantum view of the universe dissipative and chaotic in nature where the world is made up of a complex integrated system in which all aspects are interrelated, reciprocal and relational
The whole is nothing more than the sum of the parts and redundant or failing parts can be identified and replaced in order to resume effective functionality The character of the whole is dependent upon the quality and quantity of the sustaining resources and mediating conditions that are available in the environment
Human behaviour is prescribed, standardized and regulated within hierarchical or pseudo-hierarchical designed organizations that are rule bound, relational impersonal and compliant The whole is in a process of continuous change along with their constituent elements, the integrity of the whole grows form and is sustained by the organizing features that govern the way that the parts of the system relate and interact - it is not possible to understand them except in relation to one another
In many respects, our movement has established its working practices upon the managed systems model. However, as I hope I have demonstrated, much of the new conceptualization for where our communities go next is being formulated around the living systems paradigm, an emancipatory rather than predefined pedagogic approach. What is perfectly clear is that an education system operating within reform conditions will remain a managed system, but that approach will not be particularly helpful when we are attempting to realign human practice to a more transcendent, sustainable form of living, this requires a shift from managed (modern) systems to living (ecological) systems.
One possible way to move forward is to begin to study the school communities that are already well developed in this field. On the global scale, the global Eco-Schools Program is now embedded in countries around the world. The Eco-Schools program is an international programme for environmental education and management, with the aim of raising students' awareness of sustainable development issues through classroom study as well as school and community action. The programme encourages students and adults to take an active role in running their school for the benefit of the environment, and participate in the discussion and decision-making process to establish sustainable conditions for organisational practice. The Eco-Schools programme began in 1994 as a response to needs identified at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, 1992. The programme was developed and piloted by FEE – Foundation for Environmental Education with the support of the European Commission and has seven stages of development:
• Establishment of the Eco-Schools Committee
• Environmental Review
• Action Plan
• Monitoring and Evaluation
• Curriculum Linking
• Informing and Involving the Wider Community
• Creating an Eco-Code
However, there has been remarkably little research in these places, and as a result they remain fragile and need further material to substantiate the case for how they might proceed.
New initiatives are emerging too. The Obama Government in the USA has recently embedded Environmental Literacy in the Department of Education budget through the "Well-Rounded Education" program. In China, the Green School Project is an initiative of the Ministry of Education of China (MOE) and is funded by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). In India, the Paryavaran Mitra Project, a sustainability and climate change education project is aiming to create 20 million Friends of Environment in schools across India, and in Australia the federal government programme for sustainable schools is well developed. In Denmark the new curriculum proposals include at the very centre the concept of sustainability and environment. Without going so far as to suggest we ensure that both awareness and action are mandatory, the general direction that these projects have pointed towards in terms of best practice suggests that some form of knowledge focused around ‘how to models’, may provide a framework for action and modification of curriculum to guide and inform a transition of basic practice. A vehicle perhaps for ICSEI to examine in more detail in the future?
I have suggested that in starting to formulate a substantive response to the ecological challenges of our time, we have to imagine and design a different educational approach. We know that projects and programmes such as Incredible Edible in the UK, or CERES in Australia, Eden Project in Hong Kong, Growing Communities in Accra, Ghana, Detroit City of Hope and the Edible Schoolyard in the USA, or the urban food growing programme in Havana, Cuba, are just some examples of the way that people can begin to function as a community of learners (Clarke 2010) taking the first practical steps towards sustainable living.
We know that any development of this kind requires us to live with uncertainty, as the jump to solutions is just as likely to generate further, unsustainable outcomes, than it actually resolves. In designing educational responses therefore, our efforts might best be guided towards those pedagogic approaches which enable learners to experiment with different dimensions of community, working within communities of interest (things that engage them), action (participating in hands on practices), kinship (working in teams, extended intergenerationally) and place (locally focused, that extend beyond the idea we currently hold of school).
In our own work I have described how an attempt to begin to cultivate Sustainable Community is greatly enhanced by the cultivation of food, focusing on the celebration and life affirming features that growing food can facilitate. Growing food enables us to connect to nature and to learn from nature as a mentor, design and measure. The knowledge being created is of local and universal value. We have learnt that our response has to be pedagogic, and that pedagogy must empower and emancipate, not restrict and inhibit. If our pedagogic experiment becomes enquiry-led, we know that the approach leads learners to think about real-time challenges, and this helps them to connect their concerns to local issues. We already know that local solutions, suited to the nuances of local knowledge of place and connectedness to place have proved to be a feature of Natures way of surviving. Nature is both global and local, and so we too must continue to make sense of the micro to macro-level narratives of global and local human systems, this work enhances the purpose of using technology as a connector of ideas across the world.
We know that school just happens at present to be one place where we can experiment with food growing and bring some of the ideas to fruition. In the examples I have used I have shown that growing food can open up all sorts of ways that human relationships need to function in order to succeed, from a direct relationship to the land in growing food, to the design and management of complex growing sites through permaculture principles, to the structural development of hydroponic greenhouses and the adoption of new governance models such as community interest companies which illustrate that schools can completely change how they use their public spaces, change their relationship with their local community, and play a significant strategic role in the form of a food hub to show people how to re-imagine their operation for a more sustainable form of future community. We learn that we have to know how to nurture our growing produce, we develop specific, contextualised understanding of our relationship to each other, and to the soil, water, plants, light, heat and the ways they all combine to ensure the conditions conducive to life.
These simple starting points provide our students with a direct link to their environment and offer them a route to redefine their urban environments based upon what they discover. This is the first step to an eco-capability of retrofitting what we have to suit new-found situations as this learning extends from school, to neighbourhood, to community to town, to city. Physical structures need not be an impediment to new ideas, they simply have to be re-imagined for new uses and that imagination has to be continually conscious of the need to remain within Natural system design. The point being that cities, neighbourhoods and streetscapes are not going to go away in a hurry, they will be the places we live – sustainably or otherwise in the coming century, and they will form the landscape which in turn will shape the mindscape of our future citizens for good or ill. As a result, we have to reconceptualise them so that they serve our needs and those needs of the planet. The small act of growing a seed, becomes a route map for this new literacy.
That is why growing sustainable community is all about the measure of our relationships, being civilised and intelligent no longer pertains to the nuance of localised needs, it is at once an awareness of the self, the place, the relationships with others, the community, the consequences of our choices on our immediate and our planetary presence. Small starting points matter, whether they are growing food in the school yard, or working as a neighbourhood to rethink the built environment as a living landscape in which we play a part alongside nature. It represents the first tentative steps on a journey towards full useage of the city as a naturally thinking place, and a direct link to the myriad of problems people face daily in their struggle to exist in cities at the present time as it enables and empowers, rather than deskills and disempowers the citizen. Schools can be the hubs of such dialogue, forming the conversations across a world of how to do the simple things which connect us all together through our affinity to life. This simple demonstration of the possibility of new uses for existing spaces has profound possibilities.
We should continue to ensure that this work remains Naturally focused. This is why, in my formative work in this field, I have tried to ensure that we have aligned our activity towards the simple act of growing food. Growing is such a powerful connector, it serves as a guide to the necessary capabilities of observation, nurture, maintenance, conservation of resource, attention to solar energy, the cropping and preparation of food as a life source, and the cyclical properties of resources once used to form waste to enrich and maintain the soil. It therefore enables us to initiate a curriculum that is guided through a model of learning aligned to living systems theory, and by doing this we begin to see how the first steps into eco-capability might flourish. The lessons are learnt through collegial activity, in a spirit of celebration and connectedness to life, it is done with a clear desire to begin to reconnect with our places, each other, and our world. As Braungart and McDonough so beautifully express:
Imagine what a world of prosperity and health in the future will look like, and begin designing for it right now. What would it mean to become, once again, native to this place, the Earth – the home of all our relations? This is going to take us all, and it is going to take forever. But then, that’s the point. (Braungart and McDonough 2009, p.186)
This should become the measure of our collective action.
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