Dr Dylan Adams and Chantelle Haughton argue that to avert the climate crisis we must transform our relationship to nature.
The idea for this paper came from a question we were asked by a colleague who does not work in education, or rather, does not teach. Their question was: “When is the right time to start talking about climate change to children?”
As lecturers and former practitioners in early years and primary education, we could contextualise our brief discussion within these parameters. However, we feel that what follows is equally applicable to all ages in education and indeed to human beings in general.
Rather than asking “when is the right time…” we feel that it would be more important to ask, “what perspective of time is needed to avert us from ecological Armageddon?” Mainstream education in modern Western societies is governed by the clock. This narrow perspective of time not only has dire ecological consequences, but also reflects a limited world view that distorts our authentic state of being and severs us from the rhythms of our planet. Is it any wonder then that we live in apocalyptic times confronted with impending climatic catastrophe? Wonder, of course, is one of the casualties of this ontological distortion. As Thich Nhat Hanh observes, we live increasingly isolated lives, “no longer in touch with ourselves, our family, our ancestors, the Earth, or the wonders of life” (p.28).
‘The land itself has been sadly neglected in our ‘grown-up’ educational thinking.’
Children in their early years are chock-full of wonder. Malleable and in their natural wildness, they happily transcend the clutches of the clock. Yet, ironically, pupils are traditionally schooled to keep up with the ever-quickening pace of modern life. To fall behind is to fail and to fail is to fall behind. This tautology sounds appropriately at home in the political slogans produced by those who have risen through the elite educational institutions of the land. However, the land itself has been sadly neglected in our ‘grown-up’ educational thinking. It is yet another casualty of the neoliberal, capitalist worldview that sees nature as resource and proposes incessant production, quantifiable progress, measurable targets, and a lustful devotion to market forces as the cure for all ailments. Children in their early years do their human best to evade this force in their natural curiosity and love playing in and learning to care for their natural environment and the creatures living within it. Richard Louv re-summons our attention to know that nature nourishes creativity, intelligence, connection, and compassion.
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This brings us to our main rallying cry for education: to heal our relationship with the Earth and re-member ourselves as part of the natural world. We need a radical new appreciation of the purpose of education. Nothing less than honouring our authentic nature and rejecting harmful states of being will divert us from the road to the apocalyptic abyss. We need to stop focussing on symptoms and treating nature like some medicinal pill we can take to improve our wellbeing. These approaches merely pander to the prevailing paradigms and ruling dominant culture that believe we can fix our problems without changing our neoliberal, capitalist worldview. Instead, we need to question the very nature of being and our relationship to the more-than-human world.
‘If children are to be allowed to develop a healthy relationship with nature, then they need to experience their sense of relation with the more-than-human world.’
Contemplative practices in education, free from specific targets and already written end-points, can replenish education as the seeking of existential wisdom. With the possibilities of the New Curriculum for Wales, with its commitment to wellbeing, community, and sustainability, we can disrupt and reshape our former ways. We have found that mindful, immersive activities in natural places can re-connect children with each other and “others” in the more-than-human world. In addition, evidence shows that children making music in nature places and engaging in mindful activities in nature reserves affords them experiences that transcend clock-time and provide an expanded sense of self. In previous climates perhaps these experiences would be seen as a bonus or an indulgence compared to “the basics” of the curriculum. However, teachers in Wales are now being encouraged to prioritise authentic engagement and transformative learning rather than adhere to tick-box accountability targets in a narrow range of subjects. The new curriculum for Wales is aligned with the Welsh Government’s Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act. This act itself is in harmony with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All of these legislative acts aim to address the climate crisis and improve human and planetary health and wellbeing. The new curriculum asks educators to prioritise the higher purposes of education. It aims to produce ethically informed citizens committed to the sustainability of the planet. If children are to be allowed to develop a healthy relationship with nature, then they need to experience their sense of relation with the more-than-human world.
The crucial point is, we must enable children “to love the earth before we ask them to save it” Alternatively, we may adjust the argument to this: we must not inhibit the natural love children have for the Earth. Van-Matre cautioned that we need to refocus away from how to be loved and instead concentrate on how to be loving and how to be more loving to our Earth. This does not necessarily involve fine sunny weather and skipping through cornfields. We have found that a sense of grit comes into play and impacts connection when children are immersed in weather, terrain, bumpy muddy ground and bird song. Allowing our children and ourselves to tune into the heartbeat of the Earth can give access to a heightened and authentic reality that reveals the more-than-human world as sacred relations of us all. Thus, our priorities will change when we attune to our planet. Not just to save the Earth, or to save us, but to re-member who we are.
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