How not to save the environment

Inaugural Alan Strom lecture, NSW Environmental Education conference, Hawkesbury, August 2000

- Les Robinson

Socrates said "I doubt the really DEEEEP doubts!"

(at least according to the cartoon History of the World Vol 7).

And here is the very moment...


I find this image strangely compelling. We're always told that self-confidence is the most important thing in life - "Little Johnny is such a failure...he's got no self-esteem".

But for corporations, organisations or professions...self-confidence is a two-edged sword. Complete self-confidence is deadly because it destroys the capacity for change - if you never doubt your assumptions and methods, you can never change them. It means you can't grow. You get mired in convention.

Now if environmental education was a profession like, for instance accountancy, surveying or dentistry, it could afford to be small-picture and self-serving...settling for debates about professional standards, best practice and lobbying for advantage - the stuff of professional careerism.

But environmental education is unlike other professions - it is extraordinarily different because it aims to change the future. It is a calling. Our purpose is to change people, businesses and government. We are, necessarily, agents of change. And change is the toughest business there is. There is no Œbest practice'. The only thing we can be sure of is that we don't know how to do it and we have a lot to learn. The one thing we will always be changing is environmental education.

So let's do a little productive doubting. I want to start with two propositions, which, if true, mean that environmental education has a lot of changing to do.

First...what if the most effective kind of environmental education doesn't involve environmental learning?

And second...what if the solutions to environmental problems can't be found in the environment?

* * * *


On Anzac Day long weekend I joined some friends for a walk in the Snowy Mountains. We squelched over prickly fields of Richea contentalis, slept on beds of Poa sieberiana, woke under the spreading boughs of Eucalyptus pauciflora ssp pauciflora...enjoying the wonderful redemption of tribal life. It was a little like dying and going to heaven.

Here's a picture of me on the slope above Blue Lake.

Les over Blue Lake

Then, on the forth day, on the far ridge in this photo, we came across a piece of environmental education. Here it is -

Hedley tarn sign

Somebody in the National Parks and Wildlife Service had decided that what we really needed to know at this point was -

"Hedley Tarn is a shallow glacial lake formed behind a series of end moraines. Moraines are accumulations of material that have been carried and deposited by glacial ice. The lowest of these moraines probably represents the maximal extent of Blue Lake Glacier."

Now why is this fragment of high school science so disheartening and irrelevant?

I think it's because it's a set of dead facts...complete, know-it-all, cut-and-dried...and it because it sought to reduce this magnificent landscape to something banal and controlled.

To illustrate the point...I'd like to propose an alternative sign... It's from a poem.

Vast glaciers...

Vast glaciers crushed their weight across the plain

And hurled their icebergs into ancient seas;

The mountains sank, and then stood up again;

Great scaly lizards sang in green trees

The changed to duck and heron, swan and crane;

And flying like stars through all this whirling dance

Over the earth dispersed the seeds of plants

- Douglas Stewart, One Yard of Earth

Or why not something even more open and ambiguous? (from the same poem)

One yard of earth where ant and bird have trod

Where time lies fossilised in sand or stone

Where starlight has looked down and maybe God

One yard of earth, ragged, obscure and humble,

Where truth hangs trembling while wildflowers tumble

These lines are filled with deep time. They are ambiguous, pregnant and whimsical. They are visionary. They open up huge imaginative spaces for the reader.

I think lines like this, on a plaque above Blue Lake, would have put me more in tune with the environment, and made me more appreciative, and more interested in protecting it, than a few dead scientific facts.

Maybe this is what Michael Leunig meant -

"Now we fancy that we are environmentally aware, but do we yet understand the ecology of human nature, the fragile ecology of the soul? The spiritual eco-system upon which everything depends?"

But then, perhaps this plaque is not really about environmental education, but rather a scat dropped by a technocratic corporation to mark its territory...dropped by a managed technocracy not very different from the education system, public corporations, agencies and councils which employ us all.

And like all scats, it tells us a lot about the animal that dropped it...especially it's diet. Which, in common with all managed corporations, consists mainly of value-free information or data.

I worry about the current obsession with information. Because I think there is a connection between the triumph of information and the recent triumph of the manager.

When the history of this age is written, the last 30 years of the 20th century will probably be summarised as "the triumph of management and the retreat of democracy". I think the managerial monster unleashed by the Greiner government has been the most self-destructive act that democracy has perpetrated on itself in the 20th century. Now we have unassailably powerful new elites in every sector of society, people with amazing arrogance and little human or practical experience, applying abstract management tools which are parodies of social leadership...

I mention in passing last year's managerial shake-up of the NPWS which sees it's 8-person executive now with only one person with more than 2 years experience in the service - the legal officer. And plans floated by the Dept of School Education last year to allow school principles to be replaced by professional managers. (To get a grasp of what is happening, read The Human Costs of Managerialism (Pluto Press), or, to really give yourselves a real fright, look into any management text book. But let's not get sidetracked.)

Let's go back and think about environmental education and all the things it needs to be...remembering that it's purpose is changing people to change the future.

Here is a list of educational goals and the tools you could use...assuming you wanted to be an agent of change.

Table of goals and tools for educators

You'll notice that some of these goals are not traditionally associated with 'education'. But environmental eduction's worst mistake would be to fall into convenient conventions. It must be about building the capabilities of communities to make their own change.

You can divide tools into passive and active tools (see table).

And the interesting thing to note is that many of these tools require the 'educator' to be step away from educational convention, and become instead a facilitator of group activities and experiences, rather than a downloader of things which can be converted into data.

Just to add some validity to's a quotation -

"It is a fundamental presumption of Agenda 21 that sustainable development is only possible if it is built by, through and with the commitment of local communities. Enabling communities to become sustainable through their own actions...whilst providing equality of opportunity to participate in decision-making processes....represents the greatest challenge facing human society in the 21st century."

- Dr Roger Talbot, Towards the Ecological Society - a Toolkit for Community Learning. (my emphasis)

"Enabling communities to become sustainable through their own actions - it's the best definition of environmental education I can think of.

* * * *

Welcome to Jellybeanland 2000

I want to tell you a fable about a mythical country where the systems of society are devoted entirely to information. Let's call information or data 'jelly-beans' and call the country 'Jellybeanland'.

No, the schools of Jellybeanland are not places where relationships, or teamwork, or communication, or morality are taught. Instead they focus on the study of jelly beans. Students learn to count jelly-beans, identify and memorise jelly-beans, and make model jelly-beans.

The universities of Jellybeanland are devoted entirely to the study of jelly-beans. Students study the evolution of jelly-beans, the anatomy of jelly-beans, the history of jelly-beans, the preservation of rare and endangered jelly-beans, the taxonomy, topology, ontology and cosmology of jelly-beans.

Graduates from the University of Jellybeanland are superbly adapted to life in Jellybeanland's corporations, which are also devoted (not surprisingly) to the measurement, counting, analysis, assessment, marketing and management of jelly-beans. The senior managers of these corporations are veritable gurus who have given their whole lives to jelly bean logic and the categorisation, transformation and manipulation of jelly-bean systems.

Meanwhile promotion in these corporations is entirely dependent on one's ability to analyse, collect, hoard, bank and manipulate jelly-beans.

Then a revolution occurred in Jellybeanland. The people had grow restive and demanded that their government act on Jellybeanland's looming social and environmental problems.

And so Jellybeanland's elected leaders directed some of the public corporations to be less self-serving and work at solving the problems of society and the environment....attending to things like domestic violence, poverty, family breakdown and pollution.

Fortunately the managers of these corporations knew just what to do. They had long surmised that the problems of society were due to a deficit of jelly beans...and that application of the right jellybeans in the right amounts would restore order and health to society.

After about 20 years it became clear that this strategy was failing - Jellybeanland's social and environmental problems were spiralling out of control and the politicians were getting jittery.

So, reluctantly, the managers called in consultants.

These consultants were people who had been to the same universities and previously worked in the same corporations, but they were made of better stuff. They said -

"Simply distributing jellybeans cannot possibly solve the problems of society. We don't now what the answer is...but the first step is to carry out market research to understand the needs and perceptions of the population. Don't worry...we'll design the surveys. And we'll ask the really important questions like - Why are people averse to the black jelly-bean? Which jelly-beans to people prefer most? How do people find out about jelly-beans? How to people prefer to receive their jelly-beans? What should be the government's top 5 policy priorities, vis-a-vis jelly-beans? And...if you pay us a LOT of money we may be able to uncover the configuration of the silver-bullet jellybean which will solve all of society's problems."

And the managers said "Yes, we too believe in the silver bullet's the money."

Now, while this insanity is going on, the people have gradually lost all faith in government. The certainties of the political system have disintegrated. The politicians are frozen with terror and spend all their time inventing ever more diabolical punishments for the managers, who meanwhile are driven to a frenzy of jelly-bean measurement and analysis, focusing bigger and bigger microscopes on the examination of jelly-bean entrails.

And so we come, I believe, to Sydney its the Olympic year.

If you think this fable is a ridiculous exaggeration, here's really quite typical example of jellybeanism -

"Jim Towart reported that the National Parks and Wildlife Service has $100,000 to spend on [protecting bird habitat at] Towra Point [in Botany Bay]. $25,000 for a Plan of Management; $35,000 for study options; $40,000 for an Environmental Impact Statement on the erosion barrier, plus a Coastcare grant of $12,500 for the volunteers [to actually construct the barrier!]."

- Georges River CMC minutes, 23/4/98

I'll give you two more examples of jellybeanism in a minute.

But's vital, as environmental educators, to think about the shape of a functioning democratic government - "the process by which we collectively solve our problems and meet society's needs."

* * * *

Seeing the broken system

In a modern representative democracy there are 3 basic kinds of players - citizens, managers and politicians.

When the system works...

This system can only work well where these three parties communicate well, share common goals and have a degree of trust in each other.

When the system fails, it looks a little like this -

When the system is fragmented...
  • Politicians focus only on image and live a terror of opinion polls (they become victims of media and the image-managers in their party machines);
  • Managers retreat into their specialisations and erect walls of professional arrogance and jargon to distance themselves from the other players;
  • Citizens retreat into anger and passive-aggression, sabotaging the work of the other players.

You probably recognise this scenario. Lot's of people have commented on it -

"Distrust in politicians has turned into a deeper crisis: a crisis in the democratic method of government. The universal gripe is against the system, not just the practitioners. Nobody wants to admit the obvious: that democracy itself is in trouble."

- Paul Kelly, Can Democracy Survive? The Australian Magazine May 30 1998

Many environmentalists share the view that environmental healing is impossible without political healing.

"Recent experiences as the director of the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre and as community coordinator for the Holsworthy airport struggle, further confirm my feeling that environmental education is both subordinate and parallel to education about participation in the democratic processes - to political literacy."

- Phil Smith

* * * *

Idiot savants

"The specialist is, in the truest sense, an idiot", said George Bernard Shaw.

Here are my two examples of jellybeanism. They both involve groups of well-meaning environmental managers trying to make a difference.

In December last year I went to a one-day conference on the environmental problems of the Georges River.

Here's a typical waterway in the Georges River catchment...

Canal in the Georges River catchment

The conference was organised by a collaboration of councils, at the initiative of senior environmental planners and managers who really wanted to see things change.

There were maybe 100 people in the hall...all council or agency technocrats, except for a few academics, a few citizens and a few councillors.

I heard the word 'management' hundreds of times...and the word 'community' not once. Speaker after speaker identified the need for better data on the Georges River. People were really excited about the Powerpoint presentation by the academics who had been given a million dollars to analyse and model the water quality processes in Moreton Bay, Queensland.

The implication from the conference was that lack of data was the problem (a deficit of jelly beans). Yet the Georges River is a classic diffuse pollution syndrome. A million people live in the catchment. The daily actions of a million people, thousands of enterprises, and scores of government organisations, are the cause of the problems of the Georges River. No amount of water quality data is going to improve the Georges River. It's problems are the problems of consumerism and technology...and the solutions are about everyday choices, ownership, optimism, leadership, and political will...all things neatly tucked away inside that strategic objective called 'education'.

Even if 100 technocrats had agreed that 'education' and community empowerment were the solutions, the decision would be meaningless without the participation of informed community representatives, elected and unelected.

Bring the people in, and the politicians will follow. Suddenly you have a space where all three players can communicate, share, learn and build trust.

Leave out the people and the best laid plans stay on the shelf. The managerial strategy of keeping the people outside of management systems and letting the politicians take the blame for failure only works when your aim is to maintain the status quo. If you want positive change, then the people have to be allies, because it's just too easy for ignorant, angry citizens to tear you plans to pieces...simply by turning frightened politicians against you.

A few days later I went to another event. This one was a seminar organised by the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning to help Penrith City Council plan a new suburb at Kingswood, next to the Werrington Campus of UWS.

I found myself in almost an identical situation. It was a convocation of urban design brainiacs...the kind people who still wear cravats and talk with English help create a design plan for Penrith Council. The Mayor on Penrith gave a short speech and left. There were no other politicians or citizens present.

And there was a refreshing air of agreement. After all, we all know how a new suburb or mini-city should be designed nowadays...mixed use transit-oriented centres, streets with good lines of sight, houses addressing the street...the New Urbanism. There was nothing to argue about really.

And yet...there are 10,000 or 20,000 people living immediately around the vacant space that would be a bright shiny new town one day. Their consent is actually a vital element of any new plans. That means informed consent.

Here was a brilliant, and missed, opportunity to engage with citizens and move along that informed consent. And of course, since there were no voters at the seminar, no councillors bothered to turn up. The very people who would need to understand the new design principles, to argue the case in public, also missed out a vital and rare learning opportunity. I guess they'd get a report in their next business papers.

It was not long ago that urban design professionals all pretty much agreed that 'urban villages' were the solution to a host of urban problems. So did the planners are Warringah Council. But they don't mention 'urban villages' any more. They are afraid to. The citizens of Warringah hate the idea... no one bothered to involve them in the planning process...and the 'urban village' concept was swept away by a few paranoid letters to the editor and some angry public meetings.

This will always happen to well laid plans, unless people participate from the beginning as equal insiders in the processes of government.

* * * *

Some ways to resist

But it doesn't have to be a story of failure.

In mending the political system there is a natural role for environmental educators.

A major and unremarked social change has occurred in the last 30 years. It used to be that the managers were the unproductive grit in the system. Too many bureaucrats were corrupt, lazy, plodding, self-serving and inefficient. But there has been a slow revolution that's never talked about. Now you'll find the best, smartest, most committed, idealistic, hard working people the middle ranks of the technocracy. Instead the weakness in our system of government is now the disengaged and infuriated citizenry.

So, how can we become facilitators of informed citizen participation - sharing skills, knowledge and a slice of power - even though our management systems try to make this impossible?

I was at a health educator's conference 2 weeks ago...and the talk turned to resisting managerial systems. I think there are at least three ways.

First...use information against them. Either get good at feeding them the information they want, then go ahead and do what you want. Or set out to generate the data which will justify community participation (doing your own surveys and evaluations is always an empowering step);

Second...make smart use of 'consultative' processes to make possible long-term engagement with groups of active citizens;

Third...make use of peer education models like EarthWorks, RiverKeepers, Landcare, Bushcare and Coastcare, to refocus 'education' into community development.

* * * *

A warm night in Kiama

So, I've talked about the tyranny of information, and modern management systems. And the danger of environmental educators being swept into a Jellybeanland, where communicating passionless information replaces all the empowering kinds of human engagement.

I'll conclude by mentioning a place where a better environmental future is being created - Kiama Council.

On one of those howlingly bitter cold nights in June there was a event in Kiama Library to mark a gift of $1,000 worth of environmental books by the Kiama Greens who have governed Kiama in partnership with progressive Labor councillors for 2 terms.

It was the kind of freezing night NOBODY leaves home. But there were maybe 50 people there.

I don't know whether you know it - but Kiama is a shining light of environmental planning and participation. It's Local Environment Plan is studied in universities. It has turned away from mass urban development, and is effectively protecting it's rainforests, wetlands, coastline and heritage, and minimising it's waste, while still balancing its budget. And it has broad popular support.

Ten years ago the Mayor was a land developer and council was floating plans for suburbanisation of the hills behind Kiama and the beautiful Gerringong fact all the remaining suitable open land in the municipality! That plan drove citizen activism which elected a Green to the balance of power, and changed the destiny of that beautiful slice of coast and mountains, and it's communities.

The meeting began with a speech thanking and celebrating the extraordinary efforts of individuals and groups in protecting and regenerating local places.

Meanwhile in the audience...and this is my point....there was the Director of Planning, the Environmental Services manager, other senior council managers, plus the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and other councillors. This was a Kiama Greens event, a community event...they didn't have to turn up.

Here were citizens, councillors and managers, working together in a spirit of trust and cooperation. This event would have been impossible 10 years ago.

What I want to say is that the business of saving the environment needs to be less about facts, and more about relationships...especially about building spaces and opportunities for positive relationships to be formed and flourish...and using those spaces and opportunities to build informed citizenship.

And maybe relationship-building is what the best environmental education is about too.


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