Introducing Bert tulk

Q. What have been the key milestones on your environmental/sustainability education journey so far?

A strong sense of place has steered my environmental/sustainability education journey.  Born in a small Newfoundland outport community that drew its lifeblood from natural resource industries such as fishing and logging, my upbringing was predicated upon being close to nature, largely as preparation for my learning to earn a living from the land and sea.  As a point of clarification for readers who may hold a stereotypical view of Newfoundlanders as ‘savage clubbers of seals’, I must confess to always being faint-hearted towards hunting, indeed towards any form of inflicting pain or suffering.  Even though my father ‘went to the ice’ in the annual seal hunt, he was a most gentle person, who taught me to revere life in all its forms.

Teaching in tiny, remote villages on the coast of Labrador in the early 1980s, I developed a deep appreciation for aboriginal peoples as I witnessed their struggle against massive odds to maintain some semblance of their cultural heritage.  After a year in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I then moved to Labrador City, a northern mining community, in 1984.  My exposure to one of the largest open-pit mining operations in the world showed for me the impact of ‘development’ on a pristine wilderness area.  It also bore witness to the effects on people who had been transplanted from their roots, their place, to a town site erected in an inland, isolated wilderness; for the first time I discovered what it was like NOT to be able to smell the salt water!  

In the early 1990s, I again lived in St. John’s for my tenure as Director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Global Education Project.  This period witnessed the social and economic fallout of the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery, the 500-year traditional mainstay of the island, with its eventual closure in 1992.  Visiting all parts of the province in the aftermath of the start of the cod moratorium, I saw the decimation of many fishing communities as thousands of young families ‘left in droves for the mainland’ for jobs.  

Moving my family to Toronto for my doctoral residency helped me appreciate more fully what many expatriate Newfoundlanders experience.  While we enjoyed the amenities and attractions of the big city, we knew our sojourn was for a defined period; others do not have that luxury!  Toronto also showed some of the downsides of city living; the squalor, the fast pace, the anonymity, the disconnectedness and the facade.  I recall a huge video screen on the corner of Yonge Street and Bloor Street displaying a lush, green scene with a mountain in the background to promote some ‘essential’ consumer product.  The people on the Toronto sidewalk see but can’t experience; the people in Newfoundland experience, but often don’t see until they are removed from their place ... what irony!  While visits to Toronto remain enjoyable, they always serve to re-affirm a sense of holistic health and wellbeing derived from living in a close-to-nature elsewhere.           

Studying at the University of Toronto was a key milestone; the Transformative Learning focus gave me the opportunity to concentrate fully on community and ‘global ecological and social issues as they relate to education.’ Professor David Selby was my doctoral supervisor … he has been my brilliant mentor ever since! His leadership in forming, leading and growing SF continues to amaze!  

My professional responsibilities since 1995 have been predominantly in educational administration, but I seek opportunities to ‘tilt the steering wheel” in the global and sustainability education direction ... through research, teaching, curriculum development and in-service training on related issues.     

Q. How do you see the environmental/sustainability education landscape at this point in time?

At the risk of being labelled an alarmist, the rapidly deteriorating condition of the environment has gone beyond the stage of easy reparation and recovery.  With few exceptions, the severity of the continuing assault on the earth has not been duly and widely acknowledged. While environmental/sustainability education holds potential for helping arrest the free-fall plunge, the focus and depth of the response must intensify. The growing attention to disaster risk reduction shows promise towards designing actions to assist in mitigating the impending effects of climate change, for example. The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development was launched with optimism; unfortunately, its course has run without sufficient progress to match and turn around the disintegrating global condition.

Q. What likely and desired future directions do you envisage, and what do you see as the implications for your own work?

The current outlook gives little cause for optimism. There is a major gap between current practice and sustainable living on a broad scale. The transition to a healthy and sustainable future requires fundamentally different ways of thinking and acting. Education’s role in attaining widespread acceptance of (and congruence in) living within the means of nature will be enhanced through the infusion of whole systems thinking and design across the curriculum and grade levels.

The predominant ‘business-as-usual’ mindset is formidable, with political and corporate forces pursuing short-term economic development, giving little consideration for long-term detrimental impacts on the environment. A prime example is the rapid expansion of the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). It exemplifies the extreme to which government and industry will go to extract fossil fuels; the lure and temptation of economically cheap reserves to feed the energy appetite too often overrides environmental/ecological, social, and cultural considerations. Fortunately, the widespread resistance to fracking has led to many governments placing bans and moratoriums on the risky practice. These successes have been largely the result of grass-roots movements, which utilize information and social media to defend against the practice. It can be argued that the controversy around fracking is a harbinger of future environmental struggles. If so, the role of education in the unfolding debate is critical; the issue will remain high on my agenda!   

Q. How do you envisage your engagement with SF developing?

Having recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, SF has made significant contributions to the education for sustainability field, most notably in addressing climate change, disaster risk reduction and peacebuilding. My professional focus for the past decade has been in the area of special education and premised on an inclusive philosophy. As I prepare for retirement from ‘the system’ and transition to become more fully engaged in the work of SF, I will be better positioned to advance issues, such as inclusive education, building fracking awareness and associated issues from a critical and transformative perspective.   

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