The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World

To tackle the Earth's problems, we must look at the culture behind them, finds Laurence Coupe

November 26, 2009

In 1933, F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson's Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness was published. Now widely regarded as unpardonably elitist in its assumptions, it was in fact designed for use by schools, teacher training colleges and the Workers' Educational Association. The idea was to offer a means of resisting the "standardisation" of life caused by mass production and entertainment.

Looking again at the title of Leavis and Thompson's volume, it is clear that by "environment" they meant two different things. First, they meant the social structure of modern, urban England. This they saw as having suppressed a living culture - the rural way of life that had been expressed most powerfully in the language of William Shakespeare, and the demise of which was documented by writers such as George Sturt, author of Change in the Village (1912) and The Wheelwright's Shop (1923). Because the worlds of Shakespeare and Sturt were rooted in a way of life that itself had roots in the land, they saw culture as an embodiment of the environment in a second sense: the rhythms of a natural order, manifest in a specific (English) locality.

Turning to The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy, an important collection of essays produced in a situation far more daunting than that faced by Leavis and Thompson, we can still trace some continuity. In his introduction, editor Arran Stibbe addresses the need for people to "become empowered to read society critically". Moreover, he advocates starting not with the problems that are undermining the ability of the Earth to support human life, but with what has gone wrong with our culture in order for those problems to arise.

What is required is something contributor Stephen Sterling calls "ecological intelligence": that is, an understanding of the interrelationship of all living things. This is the principle informing Karen Blincoe's case for "re-educating the person", and Kate Davies' model of a "learning society". If ecological intelligence is to survive and flourish, we need to resist what Stibbe calls, in his essay on advertising, "the pseudo-satisfier discourse" of the contemporary mass media. One stratagem might be the "ecocritical" approach to everyday experience, as persuasively set forth by Greg Garrard.

We are also reminded that the forces that are oppressing nature are simultaneously repressing our humanity. We are exhorted to "find meaning without consuming" (Paul Maiteny), to widen our aesthetics to include natural beauty as a "way of knowing" (Barry Bignell), and to discover new ways of "being-in-the-world" (John Danvers). This last initiative involves regarding the self as "open work", as process rather than as object. As such, it is continually emerging and merging with "the unfolding communal mind", itself inseparable from the whole "web of being". In that sense, we may say that the self makes sense only when it is viewed in the context of a human culture that is tied to a more-than-human nature.

Leavis and Thompson had too limited a view of both these spheres, and reading Danvers' essay, along with many others in this volume, brings into focus just how far we have to move beyond them. Again, although Leavis and Thompson's intuition that to promote a way of life that is in touch with the Earth demands critical awareness was sound enough, it has to be understood in a much wider and deeper sense. Sustainability Literacy helps us to do just that, and in doing so equips us to confront the unprecedented challenges to come.

The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World

Edited by Arran Stibbe

Green Books, 220pp, £14.95

ISBN 9781900322607

Published 1 September 2009

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