Ben Ballin writes: Back in January, NAEE trustee Morgan Phillips offered his stimulating thoughts on reframing environmental education.  This blog is intended to complement his contribution, and indeed it especially concerns itself with the value of adopting complementary approaches.

In writing it, I have gone ‘back to the future’ and revisited ideas that I shared in the Summer 2016 edition of Environmental Education.  Like that article, this piece starts out with the sometimes-vexed question of terminology.

The great educational thinker Jerome Bruner once famously asserted that “education is not an island, but part of the continent of culture.” If so, then – four years on – there still seems to be a bit of a muddle in the map-making department about where some of the key ideas around ESD, EE, Global Learning etc. ought to go.  I offered some metaphors in 2016 that I hoped would help … and I think they may still do so.

  1. Let us imagine the environment as a vast and oceanic swimming pool. Inside this pool, we can find all human activity; everything that has been grown, made or changed by people; plus, all the as-yet-unmanipulated remnants of the natural world. In other words, within it we can find pretty much everything.  This is what (it seems to me) Environmental Education is most interested in (especially the ‘natural world’, though it would be flying in the face of evidence to see any of the world as untouched by human activity).
  2. Let us imagine the global as the boundaries of that enormous pool: its sides, the pool bottom, the roof above it. This is the limit of where everything in the pool can happen and interact. Again, it covers pretty well everything.  The processes within those boundaries are what Global Learning is most interested in (especially the human ones, although it would be ecologically illiterate to imagine that human beings can exist independently of their environment).
  3. Let us imagine sustainable development as a perpetual-motion machine. This keeps everything moving and interacting inside our boundaried pool. If one element within the pool gets seriously out of balance with another, the machine risks grinding to a halt, and the pool is spoiled.  (We might give these elements names like society, economy, culture, the natural world).  In other words, the machine’s ability to work relies on the idea that human beings can live in balance with the natural world, now and in future, to the benefit of all.  So sustainable development, too, involves pretty much everything … and this is what ESD is most interested in.

Four years on, these are still imperfect and scientifically inexact metaphors.  However, if we run with them, then what we become interested in is not whether one of these things matters more than another, but how they play out: how the environment operates at scales from the local to the global; how the concept of sustainability affects the way we look at the world; how different elements can work together in more or less benign ways; how the different ‘educations’ can complement each other and offer distinctive insights.

We can see, too, that things that sometimes appear to be opposed to each other may not be so: humanity vs nature, local vs global, or Global Learning vs ESD vs Environmental Education.  We need them all if we are ever to get our heads around what is going on in our world or do anything useful about it.  At best, these ideas – and their related ‘educations’ – complement each other, offering distinctive insights and approaches.  In isolation, learners are left with a restricted and partial understanding: a pool without form; boundaries without content; a perpetual-motion machine that operates outside of any context.

This is not least the case when addressing the pressing matter of what we now call the climate emergency, where local and global processes, human activity and the natural world are intimately and dangerously intertwined.   This seemed urgent four years ago: it is critical now.

Through learning, we construct reality: we make the world.  I thought in 2016, and think even more so now, that doing this well is not simply a matter of theory, but a matter of survival.


Ben Ballin is an NAEE Fellow and Chair of the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network.  The original article was written for the Tide~ project, Young people on the global stage.  This article was published in NAEE’s latest journal, Volume 123, which had biodiversity as a theme.  Newly-published editions of the journal are available to members.


  1. Hi Ben – An interesting set of metaphors that I have come to for the first time as I don’t remember seeing the original version. I see two immediate problems with this way of framing. The first is that using the idea of ‘being in balance’ puts in mind a set of scales in which elements are separated from each other rather than in relation – is there a way of expressing things so that the relational comes through more strongly? The second is that, if the pool is a metaphor for the planet, then activity is not confined to the pool because as human beings we are exploring beyond our planet to seek solutions to the mess we have made of the world. Thanks for the provocation!

  2. Thnaks Fran. It is an inexact metaphor in those senses. What I hoped would be useful about it was the light that it throws on the various terminologies for related ‘adjectival educations’ and the ways in which they might complement rather than compete with each other. I think we would probably need a biological or ecological metaphor for the sort of relational model that you are describing, which is far less boundaried (as you say). To infinity and beyond!

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