Introducing SF Associate Member Leo Elshof, Canada

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

I grew up on a mixed farm in rural southern Ontario surrounded by fields, forests, farm animals, ponds and streams to play and create adventure in. Most of our time was spent outdoors, and these experiences shaped my love of nature.

As a young adult I worked in an engineering career that entailed frequent air travel over vast expanses of Canada’s near and far north to work at remote mines, paper mills and oil and gas extraction sites. What I saw from the air, the immense clear-cutting destruction of forests, the poisoning of lakes and streams through industrial mining and vast chemical tailings ponds, all this had a profound impact on me. This was certainly a milestone event for me; for the first time I became aware of the immense impact of our collective material footprint on natural systems far away from everyday scrutiny and awareness.  These experiences both angered and motivated me into trying to educate people about our shared environmental responsibilities. A more recent milestone event for me involved attending several UN climate change conferences, where I witnessed first hand how oil interests and my government colluded to emerge as one of the biggest obstacles to the development of a new comprehensive climate treaty.  It reinforced for me how dysfunctional Canadian petro-politics has become.

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

I see formal and conventional environmental education becoming more widespread and more firmly rooted in Canadian schools, and this is all very good.  But I have profound concerns about the environment that young people will inherit and the environmental trend lines emerging in Canada. Canadians have some of the largest carbon, water and ecological footprints on the planet. Over the past 25 years progressive environmental protection laws have emerged in Canada, but all of these came to a crashing halt eight years ago with the election of a neoliberal federal government. Canadians now have the most environmentally regressive federal government in our history. Economic growth especially in the resource extraction sector has run roughshod over attempts to protect waterways, habitats and species. Many of the progressive environmental protection laws that were decades in the making, have been eliminated entirely or dramatically reduced in scope in recent years in order to facilitate faster and unrestricted resource development.  Habitat protection has been slashed or eliminated for many species and ecosystems. Scientific environmental research programs have been marginalized and defunded, environmentalists have been labelled as ‘radicals’ by the government and Canada has emerged as a ‘petro-state’, aggressively promoting the consumption of dirty tar sands oil internationally, as well as campaigning to push new pipelines through pristine ecosystems. Canada, home to the majority of the world’s mining company headquarters, turns a blind eye to their international behaviour and their social and environmental impacts. Canada is well know as a climate change pariah; it still lacks any realistic plan to reduce greenhouse gases, it opted out of the Kyoto Accord and worked to kill real progress towards an international climate treaty. The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin in his book Democracy Inc.  has described the collusion of government and corporate interests as a form of ‘inverted totalitarianism’. I think this concept has a lot of relevance and explanatory power in understanding how closely we see the oil industry and the government of Canada working together today.

We see the oil industry insinuating itself into the education system through the development of energy education curriculum materials, sponsoring professional development programs for teachers and creating slick media campaigns that are attempting to normalize massive increases in tar sands oil extraction, fracking and greenhouse gas production. So while good things are happening in the classroom, the societal milieu is attempting to mislead young Canadians about the root causes of our major environmental problems.

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

I work with teachers as well as undergraduates enrolled in environmental studies. I teach courses in science and environmental education, media and the environment, environmental justice, and environmental technologies.

With the teachers I work through a critical pedagogy framework to help young people analyse and understand their world through a critical political, economic and systems thinking lens. Almost completely absent from the education of many teachers is an in-depth analysis of how our current neoliberal economic system, the dominant planetary operating system, or ‘master narrative’ if you like, is central to the environmental crisis. I believe whatever societal good environmental education achieves, or hopes to achieve, is being swamped by the overwhelming ecological demands, commodification and excesses of neoliberal economics. Without a critical understanding of how ideology, consumerism and neoliberal economics are driving us relentlessly towards what Polly Higgins describes as collective ‘ecocide’, conventional environmental education amounts to little more than triage. Environmental and social justice issues are central to just and long-term solutions to many of our collective problems; they need to comprise a much larger dimension of conventional environmental education.

‘Sustainababble’ saturates Canadian media as oil and mining interests promote public relations ‘greenwash’ campaigns abetted by government, in order to convince Canadians that they deserve a social license to operate and expand.  Clearly environmental education needs a critical literacy component to help young people discern the many ways in which rich corporations use public relations propaganda to deceive citizens and manipulate government.  I think it’s crucial that young people develop the critical consciousness to deconstruct these deceptive practices and imagine sustainable alternatives to the short-term thinking endemic to many facets of life today. Education, if it is to be meaningful and not merely superficial, must mobilize the energy of young people to understand the world as it actually is today, not envisioned through some utopian sanitized media image of modern capitalism.  Youth needs to understand who benefits from the status quo, how real and substantive sustainability oriented change is being resisted and most importantly how change might be initiated and leveraged by understanding how our interdependent social, ecological and economic systems actually work. Analytical frameworks like political ecology and ecological economics, product life cycle analysis, and industrial metabolism, all based on systems thinking, need to become more of a commonplace in EE.

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

SF is an important vehicle for sharing creative ideas and connecting with people who may be approaching similar issues from very different perspectives. I share SF with the students I work with to both inform and inspire them to think differently.  Helping young people recognize that they share common concerns with young people across the planet is invaluable, and open-source creativity and innovation shared widely will help young people understand that real solutions cannot be created in isolation.

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