Q. What have been the key milestones on your environmental/sustainability education journey so far?
My earliest recollections of thinking about the environment date to my childhood and exploring the woods around my house. We lived in a rural town in southern New Jersey and it was a great place to experience different landscapes. There were forests, rivers, lakes and, nearby, the estuaries of the Delaware Bay. Wild blueberries grew in the woods behind our house. I vividly recall the wonder that I had in being able to collect an afternoon snack while outside. My mom's large family (she was one of ten children) were mainly local farmers and so I had a lot of exposure to small-crop farms, including okra, tomatoes, cantaloupe and corn. Most people do not think of agriculture when they hear New Jersey and yet this was and remains a mainstay of the state's economy in the southern region. I also recall a children's television program popular in the early 1970s called the Big Blue Marble, which opened with the iconic image of Earth from space. This image had a profound effect on me as a child, as it did for many in the first years when such a photograph became possible, helping me to grasp the fragility and smallness of the planet amidst the infinity that is space.
A second milestone relates to being a beginning teacher in the early 1990s. My main preparation was a course in comparative world studies, which included a nine-week global environmental unit. I felt ill prepared to teach this course at first but through personal study was able to gain a working knowledge of the topics examined, such as deforestation, global climate change, species extinction and land-use issues. As I learned with my students through many inquiries, I began to realize how deeply interwoven issues were and that ecological concerns were at the root of what might otherwise be called human concerns. Looking back on that experience now, I think we spent too much time focused on the problems while not giving enough attention to the wonder of nature, or to the task of building a shared commitment to sustaining the wonder that is the planet. In my decade of teaching what I like to call this aesthetic aspect of environmental study took an increasingly greater role in my work.
My current work as a global teacher educator centers on sustainability, with particular attention to degrowth discourses. I recently conducted a study with two focus groups of high school students about how they read documentaries about global warming, what issues they were compelled to think about, what concerns were omitted from the visual texts, the manner of representation along with a critique of the implied points of view. More recently, I have visited a number of local farms in different parts of the world that aim to teach young people about sustainability through the medium of food production. I'm currently developing a graduate global competency certificate program in co-operation with a few NGOs designed for global educators and school leaders who seek to promote this type of curriculum. This program will pay robust attention to sustainability as I see it as fundamental to any curriculum bearing the name global.
Q. How do you see the environmental/sustainability education landscape at this point in time?
I find it quite puzzling since we are in possession of so much knowledge about the beleaguered state of the planet and yet fail to do much as inhabitants collectively about these concerns. We know, for example, that economic growth cannot continue in the 21st Century in the same way that it did in the 20th due to planetary limits, but there is scarcely anyone talking seriously about what this means. I recently spoke to a group of 40 high school students in the US and when I asked what peak oil is, not a single student volunteered an answer and when I described the phenomena, all reported they had never heard of it. This is troubling given the seriousness of the challenges on the near-horizon not to mention how the lives of these youths in particular, from the US, are deeply implicated in a petroleum-based economy disproportionately using this energy resource. It's as if educators and schools have not begun to broach the subject, though I realize there are exemplars of those who are doing so.
I am also puzzled by the singularity of voice about education for economic gain that I witness around the world. It's not so much that it's the dominant conversation; it is seemingly the only conversation about how to improve education. There is a serious decoupling of the wider ecological trends and the society that we imagine for which we are educating young people.
There are, however, very encouraging signs of schools and educators who are moving towards a sustainability perspective about their work, from local organic farming in the Pacific to place-based education in Asia to food studies in large metropolitan areas throughout the world. I only wonder if this is too little too late with environmental education remaining a boutique issue rather than a central concern of schools.
Q. What likely and desired future directions do you envisage, and what do you see as the implications for your own work?
In the long term I would like to see a time when the term global education is no longer necessary; or, that to be an educated person is bound up with a caring and knowledgeable perspective about the planet we share. As to my contributions in this area, I am researching and sharing exemplary practices globally about efforts to teach for sustainability in the hopes that these examples may serve as a catalyst for teaching and learning about the world. Locally, I am developing a graduate certificate program to be launched in 2014 to support educators who seek professional development with respect to global learning.
Q. How do you envisage your engagement with SF developing?
I am very hopeful that we can develop joint projects around the issues mentioned herein. Sustainability Frontiers has many advantages as a forum and think-space for those committed to the work without the constraints of working within institutions that have multiple, and often conflicting, demands. Partnerships among a variety of actors and groups across a diversity of types, from NGOs, IGOs, universities, government agencies, educational institutions and the like, are crucial to having a meaningful and sustained effect on issues of broad significance. It is my hope that SF will continue to build coalitions, like the work that has been done with UNESCO and UNICEF, to promote this crucial line of inquiry and action.