Ecological education: a response to the anthropocene

‘And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ‘em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!’
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

This paper is prompted by a call for education to take up the challenge of the Anthropocene. It does so at a time when there are immediate questions surrounding how educational institutions should respond to the multilateral disruptions associated with the global coronavirus pandemic. The identification of The Anthropocene as a new geological epoch marks the dominance of human agency in shaping and reshaping geosystems in ways that are understood to be irreversible and have profound implications for the continued operation of our ecosystems.

The paper proposes that responses to the emergence of this (new) planetary reality depend fundamentally on an understanding of the origins and meaning of the Anthropocene, and especially how it conceives the relationship between humans and the rest of life on the planet. It goes on to argue that familiar concepts of the human, of Nature, and relations between them rooted in Enlightenment modernity hinder attempts to navigate the challenges ahead.

As educators we therefore advocate a shift towards ecological education that surpasses a curricular topic but which offers a root, branch, and systemic way of seeing curriculum, pedagogy, and institutions that not only acknowledges the agency of learners, but also relations between human and the more-than-human communities we all inhabit. We believe that the COVID and ecological crises exhibit significant intersections and that in these unprecedented times ecological education offers a practical and philosophically flexible response to the multiple challenges facing the planet. What is proposed recognises the value of accumulated knowledge and understanding in education as an intellectual memory bank and eschews the fetish of technological or systemic innovation for its own sake.

Education has the capacity to actively shape what we think about and how we approach our environment, bodies and social relations. The question must be asked: How do we include the environment and sustainable development in our education system to create a sustainable future that instils hope in the younger generation?