Why I believe we need a new curriculum for the environment

May 25, 2001

In what has been dubbed the "century of the environment", we find ourselves in danger of wrecking the planet. The crisis is now, today, not in the future.

The stress comes from a few industrialised countries in which the huge consumption rates of the wealthy contrast grotesquely with the desperate struggle elsewhere of the poor to survive at any cost.

The moral imperative remains to house and feed the destitute. But what should wider policy be in a world where science and technology have altered the relationship between people and the earth without providing a road map for the future?

Not "sustainable development", which avoids distinctions between economic and ecological values and is concerned with means and not ends. The question "how to make development sustainable?" is the wrong one. Our concern should be the substantive future - probable, possible and preferred.

But how can this be addressed when we have altered the atmosphere, oceans and biosphere without any understanding of these interconnected realms?

Nothing illustrates the illiteracy of these post-genomic times better than the political and media reaction to genetically modified crops, BSE or "global warming". There is scant, if any, understanding that direct answers to scientific questions may sometimes be answered only in uncertainties.

Perhaps the real issue is about education that is compartmentalised and specialised and leaves people with little ballast inside them. Without this ballast, how can people understand the present, let alone contemplate the future?

It is time to admit that education has failed to inform people how their planet works. Does this not cry out for a paradigm shift to an imaginative curriculum centred on the earth with its awesome symphony of chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, anthropology, language and social science?

Many agree that the young have been trained in narrowly focused subjects for too long, but how should things be integrated that should never have been separated? And will anyone respond?

They should because the rewards may be disproportionate - the emergence of more complete and imaginative scientists and social scientists not hamstrung by dogmas of the day.

Unrealistic, some will say. But by now there is enough evidence to show that the environment is being degraded and destroyed by, to cite Edward O. Wilson, brilliant primates who have acquired intelligence but not wisdom and who are reckless and instinct driven.

An urgent explanatory integration and synthesis of the natural and social sciences is required for people to be able to deal with the future.

Tentative flirtations at subject boundaries have failed and the best that has emerged is sustainable development, whatever that means.

The Sanskrit imperative of "taking care of the needs of the next generation before the present one" is infinitely more perceptive. But until people are equipped to think rationally about their world, can things really improve?

Convincing the comfortable in these short-term adversarial times will not be easy. Moral coercion may come from those who will inherit the future, and the young are already imbued with both the attitudes and technology for change.

For the not so young, there is J. K. Galbraith's advice that if we cannot "comfort the afflicted we should afflict the comfortable" and urge them to face up to a crisis of rationality, ethics and will.

D. Q. Bowen
Email: DQ.Bowen@ ukgateway.net

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