Act: Inspiration

Our Schools are Doing too Much to Save the Planet

January 15, 2018

Our schools are doing way too much to save the planet.

At first glance this seems a ridiculous thing to say-  how could one possibly do too much?  The UN has set massive sustainability goals for 2030.  Recent articles have outlined the amount of work that will need to be done in order to meet the 2 degree goal for global emissions agreed to by most countries on Earth.  It is a staggering goal that no nation is yet set to meet.  The immediate reaction to this knowledge is cognitive dissonance- meeting these goals is currently impossible, yet facing the prospects of not getting it done is equally impossible.  We react by doing what we can while exclaiming in a panic, ‘There is so much to do! We must do something!’  For a moment, I would like to focus on the verb, ‘doing’.

In the schools around the area I live I see many things that schools are doing to save the planet; cleaning up beaches, designing solar lights, reducing food and paper waste, planting gardens and  creating art installations from garbage.   How can that be bad?  It is certainly positive and well-meaning. It is involved with the environment and building competencies creating solutions.   It is absolutely not bad to be doing these things, yet I would like to emphasize that by putting ‘doing’ as the focal point of our efforts to work toward environmental wholeness, we are in fact continuing with ‘business as usual’ in terms of how we humans have interacted with the planet in the last many hundred years.

Doing is what we are good at in modern society, but doing, and even knowing, that is disconnected from being puts us in jeopardy.  There is, in western societies, a disconnect from nature and an emphasis on anthropocentrisim- the idea that humans are apart from the rest of creation, above it, and ultimately, in command of it.   This world view is intrinsic in the ways in which we have developed our mastery of the natural world, our use of its resources, our dominion over its animals, and our overpopulation of its spaces.  Even the sciences, those disciplines that should build our understanding of interconnected chemistry and biology, the patterns and processes intrinsic both on the Earth and in us, are still taught in most schools as disconnected sets of facts about the Earth, and separately, about us, reinforcing the idea of independence and separateness from the rest of nature.   This results in the mindset that nature is somewhere ‘out there’, to be acted upon, enjoyed in forays out ‘into’ it, but ultimately manipulated to our own ends.

The truth is, this is the mindset that got us into trouble in the first place.   It is the mindset that separates, and allows us to believe that we are independent, that we can act in small ways and then go home to be our separate selves, that we can ‘do something’ today and feel better, that we are not really intrinsically connected to every bee that dies or every fish that swallows micro-plastic or even to the soil that grows our food. Of course we cannot really become aware of that- it would cause too much pain and grief, and this would cripple us from acting altogether.

And so, I see students out for day trips with their schools, children with clipboards noting the colors of leaves, or with plastic bin bags weighing the garbage they have collected on the beaches.  Young people go for field trips and enjoy the chance to get out of class, breathe fresh air, interact with their friends while dutifully following the instructions of their teachers to observe the marine life or collect samples of water or note the striations in the rock.  Some are more curious than others, ask questions or seek answers, sense the beauty in front of them, are thoughtful and reflective.  And yet, they are still surrounded by a society, a system, and a school system as well, that reminds them they are ‘us’ observing ‘them’, or ‘it’, nature is ‘there’ and we are ‘here’, we can go home now, and come back to visit another day.

We may be meeting our schools’ curriculum targets, but  in many cases we are still missing the larger aims of environmental awareness, our essential inter-connectedness and inter-being with the planet we live on, and thus many teachers, and their students,  are not acting out of deep ecological understanding or deep ecological commitment.  The result is a flurry of doing, that while excellent on many levels, remains superficial, ‘light green’ instead of ‘deep green’, and may in fact be causing harm because of that.

There are a set of fallacies that come out of this kind of doing:   It becomes easy to think, ‘been there done that’, to develop a type of ‘I gave at the office’ mentality.   It makes us feel better to think that we have done our part; what else can we do?  It is also easier to think that someone, somewhere, with more skill and scientific knowledge, and access to resources, perhaps, will do something more significant.  Especially, it is easier to imagine that we, the smart and cognitively developed, separate beings that we are, will create a smart and scientifically developed solution that will once again act on nature , manipulate carbon sequestration or rainfall or ocean acidity and make everything OK.

This type of doing sets in a certain type of numbness that dulls the fear and ache that really ‘‘real’izing’ the predicament we are in would cause.  It will inevitably fall short of making the big changes because at its core it lacks the deep commitment to deep connection.  In schools, it can result in a type of fatigue and a loss of empathy altogether.  At its worst, it can result in the same type of separated technological solutions that have been, in part, responsible for bringing us where we are now and can have more unintended and un-imagined harmful consequences in the future.  When I talk with teachers, and even with many students, I find that they are actually aware that this is what we are doing.  They are aware, but unable to fully process the awareness, because there seems to be no other solution.

What is desperately needed now is a complete change in mindset and a turn in how we view ourselves in relation to nature.   What is needed is a return to the ancient understanding that we are fully connected to, and dependent on, and in fact inseparable from, nature.  We are nature.  This is the only understanding that will allow us the clarity, the deep understanding and commitment to act willfully and persistently, making the radical choices needed to save the planet, since within this comprehension is the deep understanding that by acting to save the planet we are saving ourselves.

It is this type of deep action, nested in the understanding of our inter-relatedness and inter-dependence on nature, and sourced in our deep ecological experiences, that will result in the changes needed now.

According to Harding,

 ‘A key aspect of these experiences is the perception of gestalts, or networks of relationships. We see that there are no isolated objects, but that objects are nodes in a vast web of relationships. When such deep experience occurs, we feel a strong sense of wide identification with what we are sensing. This identification involves a heightened sense of empathy and an expansion of our concern with non-human life. We realise how dependent we are on the well-being of nature for our own physical and psychological well-being. As a consequence there arises a natural inclination to protect non-human life. Obligation and coercion to do so become unnecessary. We understand that other beings, ranging from microbes to multi-cellular life-forms to ecosystems and watersheds, to Gaia as a whole, are engaged in the process of unfolding their innate potentials.’   (

This is a doing sourced in being and knowing, anchored in what Næss called the ‘ecological self’ and thus capable of the type of sustained will and commitment and awareness of connectedness that will be necessary to make the types of choices that are ahead of us.   This is awareness ‘real’ized: made real in actions that honor all creatures in nature and nature itself, rather than just mankind. This is the essence of deep ecology.  I believe that bringing this awareness into schools, helping students to connect to nature at a deep level through deep ecological experiences, will result in deeper, committed, action that is rooted in being, in the awareness of an ecological self.

Arne Næss, and Stephen Harding too, have said that this type of deep ecological experience cannot be created, that it must come naturally and spontaneously.  And yet, I believe that we as teachers can facilitate deep ecological experiences, can create environments where deep ecological experiences are possible, and can provoke ourselves, as well as our students, to experience nature in ways that will nurture the development of the ecological self.   If we can do this, then we have a chance to help foster a generation of young people who have the ‘being’ foundation to support their ‘doing’ for deep, sustainable, and ultimately successful cooperation and integration with Earth’s own self-regulation and regenerative design.

To that end, I have been asking myself how we might nurture those deep ecological experiences that reconnect us to nature.  It seems to me that do so we need to create a synthesis of knowing, being, and sensing in natural environments.    It is not enough to just go into nature- this often results in just walking through it, or playing on it, or interacting with each other in it, but not with it.   Careful observation in nature, together with enough knowledge to create the understanding of what we are observing, raises the level of observation to that of understanding, and of wonder.  Stephan Harding has also called this the ‘encounter’.  The process of simply but purposefully being in nature without insisting on doing anything can also improve that observation.  Finally, invoking all the senses is necessary to really observe and interact, and thus fully understand, our connectedness to nature.  In essence these three interactive elements are elements of self- the knowing self, the being self, and the sensing self, which integrate our own mind-body-senses connections to help develop an ecological self re-integrated in nature.

Teachers are most known for disseminating knowledge, but in this context, we are also called upon to connect that head-centered knowledge to body (being) and senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and touching observations).  From this starting point, we can follow Harding’s  original model toward wonder- questioning-understanding and then to deep commitment and deep action.

An excellent example of this fostering of knowledge, being, and sensing is embodied in the ‘deep time walks’ that Stephan Harding conducts at Schumacher college, where participants literally walk 4.6 kilometers while listening to the narrated science and history of Earth, including its ability to self regulate itself over time.  The walk is an experience of being in physical time while walking, gaining knowledge of Earth’s development, and sensing all of the nature around.  The result is a profound nurturing of wonder and understanding- a body-mind-senses experience.

I am reminded too, of Dave Abram’s admonition that in western society today we are desensitized, that we have lost our senses, as we have developed our language and then our cognitive abilities that have separated mind from senses.  The simple act of not speaking and not engaging in language while deeply sensing nature, as in Japanese forest bathing, can also help to re-connect us to nature, especially when we have also received the knowledge of the amazing properties of trees and their inter-connectedness to the forest around them.

Sometimes, a simple introduction of knowledge can stimulate understanding and connectedness: In the book The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery  tells the story of a group of school girls who visit an octopus exhibition and are put off by the octopus.  ‘Eww,  look how slimy it is’, they exclaim,  but when the researcher gently tells them that the octopus is pregnant, and points out the way she is protecting her eggs, the faces of the girls visibly soften and they begin to coo at it.

In my own work with teachers and others I have seen profound changes as the result of participation in a deep time walk, forest bathing, or other interactive and connective experiences.  Teachers have told me that they feel a newfound appreciation for life in general, that they found themselves weeping while forest bathing, or that they don’t feel as much desperation about saving the world because they have come to understand a vastness of purpose in which they are a small and integral part.  Teachers who are deep ecologists themselves are capable of designing, presenting and advocating for these types of deep experiences in schools.

I advocate a new approach in schools that fully embraces deep ecology as an approach that will stimulate inter-connectedness within our own selves and in inter-being with nature.   This approach, developing a deep ecological action cycle of knowing-being-sensing followed by understanding-commitment- action, will provide the type of foundation to doing that is sustainable and regenerative.  It will foster a fully connected human commitment to working together with the self regulating and regenerative Earth we are intrinsically a part of and inseparable from.  It will allow us to both tackle and reach the goals that we have set for 2030, and the goal of carbon emission, from an earth-centric perspective that will honor all of Earth’s elements, processes and creatures. It will allow us to use technology with understanding and sensitivity to nature.   It will return us, eventually, to our inter-being and connectedness to nature where we truly belong.

It is a huge undertaking for schools, a ‘doing’ of extreme proportion, but ultimately it is the only one possible.

Katharine Burke

Katharine Burke, an educator for over 30 years, is a passionate advocate for students, teachers, and teaching as well as for deep ecology, permaculture and the green shift.  She has taught English and literature to all ages from 6 years old to college students. She has a Permaculture Design Certificate and recently completed the Regenerative Design Practitioner course with the Regenesis Group. Katharine is passionate about bringing deep ecology, regenerative design and permaculture principles into schools and in training teachers in deep ecology and regenerative design. To this end, she started The Small Earth Institute (Skoppum, Norway) to offer deep ecology and regenerative design initiatives.

Tags: connection to nature, deep ecology, environmental education