Raichael Lock reviews Learning, Environment and Sustainable Development: a history of ideas by William Scott and Paul Vare; publisher Routledge. ISBN 9780367221935

Towards the end of this book the writers state that the stories ‘we tell ourselves about nature are crucial in determining our relations with the natural world’. For me, this quote provides an excellent summary of what this book achieves. Brimming with stories the chapters follow a remarkable chronology of perspectives by exploring how religion and science, writers, philosophers, sociologists, policy-makers and poets have imagined and re-imagined our relations with nature. 

The chronology may appear linear, but it is not. There are some delightful criss-crossings of time where, for example, the chapter on the ancient Earth Mother drops in on modern day Glastonbury, where the manifold influences on Forest Schools are looped together and where Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is shown drawing on ancient Greek mythology.  The stories also apply a little hindsight. For example, the authors point out that Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ brought about a ban on DDT which is likely to have led to many more human deaths from malaria, something I had not previously considered. Such nuggets make for speculation, in this instance, whether in a world without ‘Silent Spring’ ‘insectaggden’ would have already occurred?

Such detailed discussions add to the book’s ability to get the reader thinking yet, it is the inclusion of the arts that is a most welcome addition to the overall narrative. From the poetry of John Clare writing about the enclosures, the inclusion of the Romantic poets and even a chapter on the environmental protest songs of the 1960s creates a much richer story. However, there is the question as to why some artists are included and others not. Would a chapter on modern nature poets such as Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney have made an interesting addition especially as they have figured strongly in the UK’s curriculum? 

Of course, boundaries must be cast somewhere, making it important to remember that this is only one version of the story and, in its specific form, presents a strongly Western, academic perspective. But this made me ask questions such as how could such a book be written from a different perspective? Would a feminist version draw on a different array of stories perhaps including Annie Dillard, Wangari Maathai and Vandana Shiva? And what stories would a writer from an indigenous background want to tell us about education and our relations to nature?

Having asked these questions, it is worth stating that the book is more than aware of its position and starts to enter into such a debate in Part 2, aptly named ‘Present Imperfect’. Much of the work on issues around inclusion/exclusion are examined through the failure of global policy with Chapter 37 discussing the South African response to a Western perspective on environmental education. Up until this point the stories told are mainly embedded in European culture, with excursions into America which, intentionally or unintentionally, lays the ground for understanding the difficulties inherent in enacting a global educational response to the environmental crisis.

The latter chapters of the book which tend to focus on the policy and research that interfaces our ‘relations with the natural world’ provide a reminder of how good we are at recycling and re-visioning our ideas in our efforts to generate a more substantive global response. The key terms environmental education, ESD and the current framework of the Sustainable Development goals are all examined, and in the main found wanting, as conduits for instigating change.

The final section of the book titled ‘Future possible’ highlights how the stories we tell about our relations to nature are currently being situated in academia whilst also confronting the existential threats facing the world. Perhaps the shortness of this section is enough of a metaphor to leave the reader wondering just how environmental education can respond to the environmental crisis and help extend the collective, human experience.

This book would be an excellent read for anyone beginning their journey in environmental education as it tells the stories through which environmental education has emerged. It is a book I wish I had read 20 years ago. Yet, it also provides a much needed, enjoyable and condensed map of the terrain of environmental education which can challenge us all to think about not only how such stories have been imagined but how they might be reimagined.


Raichael Lock is a writer and researcher. She works with the Manchester Environmental Education Network and can be contacted at raichael.lock@manchester.ac.uk or coordinator@meen.org.uk

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