Brian Milani, 2001

Beyond Environmental Protection:
Ecological Alternatives
& Education for a Green Revolution

Paper Submitted to Multiple Currents:
Conference on Transformative Learning, Nov. 2001, OISE-UT

 The human sense of being separate from nature has a tendency to reproduce itself in insidious and sometimes paradoxical ways.  A case in point is in environmental education, where efforts to encourage “nature appreciation” and “environmental protection” often reinforce the chasm between the human economy and non-human nature.
     Environmental protection is certainly an important concern, and it is the overwhelming preoccupation of the mainstream environmental movement.  But it can also become a mindset that distracts us from seeing fundamental problems and relationships.  This mindset assumes a basic conflict between humanity and nature. It presumes an intrinsically destructive human economy from which nature must always be shielded.
     But must the human economy be so intrinsically destructive, or do we possess the capacity to adapt and fit benignly within natural processes?  Does our preoccupation with limiting and controlling brown industry divert our attention from redesigning and implementing sustainable, and even regenerative, agricultural, energy and manufacturing systems?  In this article, I am arguing this is precisely the case, and that it has huge implications, not just for “environmental education” but for the entire educational system, because our survival depends on transforming our economic system along ecological design principles.  This includes primary, secondary, post-secondary and adult education, but adult education occupies a particularly strategic position.  Adult Ed is much more embedded in civil society, and civil society is far ahead of the established educational system in engaging in this crucial transformative learning.

Work for Regeneration

     I teach a course at Toronto’s Metro Labour Education Centre on green economic alternatives.  Every week we feature an expert guest speaker from one sector of the economy: energy, manufacturing, urban design, agriculture and the food system, money and finance, etc.  The guests are innovators in ecological initiatives like community-supported agriculture, green power coops, off-the-grid housing, community currencies, and more.  Our focus is at once visionary and practical. We try to highlight the principles that reveal the ultimate potentials of eco-development, and also guide the practical activity that is already taking place in every sector.  The course is a guide to economic possibilities. But it is also an introduction to the imaginative, knowledgeable, committed, articulate, and personable activist-professionals who are living testaments to the wonderful opportunities for community service through “right livelihood”.

     For these reasons, the course can often be a real “high” to the students involved—most of whom are already very knowledgeable and self-motivated.  (I’m not immune to the same intoxication myself, since hosting the course allows me to conveniently update myself on new initiatives, and they never cease to amaze me).  The students’ highs are, however, often closely followed by frustration.  They say, “wow, this is great stuff—but where can we get the education to do this work?”   My sad answer is that, aside from the odd course in this school or that college, there is nowhere that provides comprehensive education on ecological alternatives.  The most relevant education is provided by workshops, seminars, courses and conferences offered by movement groups or individuals in civil society.  This education is sometimes of very high quality, but does not usually assure fair remuneration to those who provide it.  That which does is usually very expensive.  And there is a lot of education that is not of the greatest quality, but again primarily because of insufficient resources.
 Education for eco-alternatives suffers from the same syndrome as most work geared to social and ecological regeneration.  By and large, the work most of us get paid to do contributes to destroying our communities and the environment.  The work that regenerates our communities or ecosystems must be done “for free”.  We do it as volunteer community service, or social activism, or in the informal economy as what the mainstream economy considers simply forms of consumption: self-help building, gardening, preventive healthcare, etc.

     Many of us reinforce this dilemma by acquiescing too easily to the voluntary status of our most socially productive work.  After all, “we’re not in this for the money”.  This attitude is certainly admirable, but our social and environmental crises are deep-seated and will not be remedied by part-time spare-time action.  Saving the planet must become a full-time job.  We must insist on a revaluation of work, and find ways to remunerate what is truly important.  This remuneration might take different forms than cash, but the point is that this activity must be recognized and rewarded.  People must be able to build their livelihoods around this positive action.

    Certainly, we must try to make these changes in the economy as a whole.  But the realm of education is a crucial arena of struggle, especially because ecological alternatives are much more knowledge-intensive than mainstream forms of work and development.  OISE sociologist David Livingstone (2001) has been showing that our highly-touted corporate-global economy is by no means “knowledge-based”.  Truly high-skill jobs are concentrated in a fairly narrow band of the work force.  Many more low-skill than high-skill jobs are being generated, and most people in the developed countries are far more educated and skilled than they need to be for the available jobs.  It is civil society that is knowledge-based, suggesting latent but unrealized potentials for truly regenerative economic development.  The current cultural and educational capacity of society provides a base for a different kind of economy, but the specific skill sets and even attitudes cultivated by our educational system must be qualitatively transformed.

The Crisis of Environmental Studies

    In this context, the ridiculous status of environmental education today was dramatized for me by a conference I attended in March 2000 at York University on the future of environmental studies in Canada.  Representatives of the various university environmental studies faculties in Canada reported on a widespread crisis in their field, reflected in substantial declines in enrollment.  Ostensibly the reason was that students were choosing academic areas, like business and computing, that were more likely to provide them jobs on graduation.
    This struck me as absolutely ludicrous since I knew that most forms of ecological production are far more people-intensive than mainstream development.  The existing capitalist “information economy” is still resource-intensive and geared to displacing human labour with technology. Green development, by contrast, replaces materials, energy and capital with human intelligence and ingenuity.  It does “more with less”; and “more” is defined qualitatively because it directly targets human need.  This is true in eco-agriculture, in reutilization-based manufacturing, in eco-building, in alternative health-care, and more.  Environmental studies should, by rights, be the place to get job skills.

    The reason why existing ES fails to do this is because it is largely defined by “environmental protection” rather than ecological alternatives.  Faculties of environmental studies do not generally produce permaculturalists, solar engineers, living machine or eco-infrastructure designers, industrial ecologists, experts in Carbohydrate chemistry, eco-footprint accountants or social investment specialists.  They churn out policy wonks, bureaucrats, and technical people to help the regulators.  They also produce lawyers and engineers to help corporations get around the regulators.  They also produce many academics, including some exceptionally cross-disciplinary ones, to contribute to society’s knowledge about nature, and relationships among nature, society, gender, technology, etc.—except where it comes down to practical alternatives.  The knowledge generated is exceedingly abstract.  Environmental studies, therefore, like the rest of the university, remains quite divorced from the surrounding community.

    It is interesting to note where all this leaves students, particularly graduate students, who decline becoming bureaucrats or techies for either the regulators or the regulated.  They are left in an academia that is probably more disconnected from alternative social movements than any time in over a century.  The dominant academic current is an intellectual liberalism known as postmodernism, that frowns on any large social vision—since such vision must surely, in its view, be suppressive of diverse viewpoints.  Many socially- and environmentally-aware students, therefore, become stuck in a suffocating intellectual milieu preoccupied with textual analysis and “discourses” about relative power relationships in capitalist society.  They may be very sympathetic to, and even somewhat active in, oppositional social movements, but their intellectual efforts tend to undermine grassroots efforts to create the social and ecological visions that are so essential to political-economic alternatives.

Jobs for What?

    Today there is raging debate about whether education should be geared to a “liberal education” or training for jobs.  Many people on the left question the subordination of education to the corporate bottom-line, and so argue against a jobs focus.  But a greater emphasis on practical job skills is not in itself a bad idea, so long as this work is geared to provide for real community needs.  Such work goes hand-in-hand with the best kind of liberal education.  The real problem today is that the university is being asked to produce intellectual labourers for work that is largely destructive of community and environment.  It is crucial that the current debate about education raises questions about the nature of work.
    It must be added, for those not well-informed about green economics, that we are not talking here about a return to the stone-age, but the most sophisticated form of postindustrial economy.  As discussed above, green development is far more knowledge-intensive than mainstream development: it tries to do more with less—using the most intelligent route to satisfy the most human needs with the fewest resources.  This requires lots of creativity.

    We have been sold a bill of goods about the need for “competitiveness” in the global economy, and its relationship to efficiency.  The corporate-global economy, with its giant loops of production and consumption; its pseudo-diversity of superfluous product choices; and its energy and agricultural monocultures, is probably the most inefficient, irrational and wasteful system we could have.  Its markets ignore major social and environmental costs that ultimately must be paid.
Former World Bank environmental economist Herman Daly (1997) has pointed out that a truly sensible and efficient world economy would be moving to put restrictions on the flow of material goods and resources (encouraging people to make the most of local resources), while decreasing restrictions on the flow of information.  In fact, globalization is doing exactly the opposite: decreasing restrictions on the flow of goods and resources through free trade, and increasing restrictions on the flow of information through intellectual property rights.

    Long-distance free trade is, of course, based on pollution. As Wayne Roberts (1995) has argued, the global economy would likely collapse overnight if subsidies to cheap dirty energy (which essentially subsidize long-distance transport) were suddenly eliminated.  The system also continues to define “productivity” as labour- rather than resource-productivity.  Technology and resources are substituted for people, while the world population and mass unemployment are growing, and as all living systems are in decline.  Does this make sense?  This itemization of the irrationalities of the current system could go on endlessly.

Restructuring for Green Alternatives Education

     There are definite parallels between the greening of the industrial economy and the greening of the educational system.  In the case of the economy, various writers, including myself (Milani, 2000), have argued that an ecological economy is not created simply by improving the eco-efficiency of existing industrial production, or including full costs into capitalist market prices. Artificial barriers must be eliminated between production and consumption, public and private, and formal and informal economies.  This is because so much important social and ecological production takes place outside the market and outside the cash economy.  Human development and natural regeneration take place everywhere.
    By the same token, green educational reform would not simply inject environmental content into curriculum or add on positive environmental experiences.   It would have to involve major restructuring in line with three major factors.  First is the fact that green production is so knowledge- and learning-based.  Second, this knowledge is intimately connected with practice.  And third, most forms of green production go beyond existing boundaries between home and “workplace”, community and marketplace.

    In Designing the Green Economy, I describe the “distributed” nature of green production in various sectors of the economy—e.g. in food and agriculture, in energy and even in manufacturing.  Cities—which are usually not associated with growing things—must become dynamos of plant production, simply because this is the appropriate use of all the organic waste produced by cities.  This growing would be for food production, for water treatment, for climate control, and even for industrial feedstocks.  Think what this means for education in agriculture, in city planning, in waste management, in energy system design.  One can also see how the boundaries between these educational disciplines would need to overlap.
     The relationship of mental and manual would also tend to change in a green economy. In energy, for example, various writers have pointed out that the mix of skills in renewables and conservation is very different than it is in nuclear- and fossil-fuels.  For example, the ratio of tradespeople to professional, scientific and technical people in nuclear energy is 2 to 1; in solar energy it is 9 to 1.  Green production tends to produce mid- to high-skill work that is much more accessible, and much more plentiful, than industrial production.

     There is another dimension of green work that relates to the nature of holistic design—and design is a crucial aspect of all green work.  Noted architect Christopher Alexander (1979) argues that holistic design requires a new relationship between design and execution.  Architects must, he says, become more intimately involved with the actual building process to create spaces that really live.  That is, they must become builders, like the Master Builders of old.  And all people must, to some degree or another, become designers.  Ecological design, say Stuart Cowan and Sym Van der Ryn (1996), is intrinsically participatory; it requires, in their words, a high “eyes to acres” ratio, in order to constantly monitor and adapt to micro-climates and local ecosystems.

        For these reasons, Green production requires a new kind of professionalism—an expertise more integrated into social and ecological life, and a new culture of service.  This kind of professionalism is virtually antithetical to the current forms of professionalism cultivated by universities.
 For green-alternative education to be successful, it would have to establish more dynamic relationships between levels of education. Universities would have to be more connected with technical and community colleges.  Technical education would have to be enriched with a broader social and ecological ethos, and become more cross-disciplinary.  University education would have to be more tuned into practical needs and skills.  Both levels would have to be more integrated with programmes for continuing and adult education, giving people optimal space to adapt and grow.  Alexander argues that education today requires new forms of apprenticeship that connect work, learning and community, as well as theory and practice.  The community would become a classroom.  Others have insisted that a knowledge-based economy requires new forms of craft, as well as the recovery of many older forms.  The craftsperson typically combines design and execution on a high level.

     Green economic education is not, however, simply glorified trades training.  It is based on new forms of knowledge about ecosystems, and about community needs and capacities. Communities and regions need to know much more about their natural systems and their resources, both renewable and non-renewable. An ecological economy would attempt to be like nature in that there would be no waste: every output of a process would be an input for some other process.  Industrial systems would be designed to make this happen, but this requires lots of knowledge combined with great imagination.  Because an ecological economy depends so much on human creativity, and because resource conservation depends on directly targeting human need, much more would also have to be known about community skills and needs.  Universities, therefore, would have a crucial place in developing both specialized and generalized knowledge necessary to both green work and green planning.

Universities, Green Planning and Indicators

     Virtually every discipline and profession needs to be radically transformed to tap its potential to create real qualitative wealth: engineering, medicine, agriculture, etc.  But society also needs knowledge to consciously guide overall economic development.  Universities can help provide the knowledge needed for realistic planning by mapping natural flows, resources, skills and social needs.
 One important way universities can serve progressive community economic planning is by helping to create and compile indicators of real wealth.  Some of the most important indicators are very objective: biophysical measures of ecosystems and of human production and consumption.  They give us some idea of how nature works and how we are affecting nature.  Other objective indicators are social: measurements of crime rates, violence against women, income disparities, education levels, etc.  But some indicators are more subjective, giving us some sense of what our communities value and why.  Universities are already important locales for the development of indicators for scholarly purposes and for government, but there are relatively new forms of indicators that are closely connected to community economic development. They have been called “sustainable community indicators” (SCI).

    Most media attention has been focused on large national indicator systems, like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which is meant to be an alternative to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a general measure of the economy’s health.  But sustainable community indicator projects—which are growing by leaps and bound—are, I believe, actually much more important as alternative measures of value.  They are simultaneously modes of community consciousness, forms of education, means of planning, and ways of actually changing things.  While based on all kinds of detailed social and environmental data, most of the SCI projects feature a relatively small number of key indicators, say between 20 and 50, that people have decided best reflects the overall quality of social and environmental life.  Sustainable Seattle is probably the best known of the community indicator projects, but they exist in most major cities. While their educational function is emphasized in most places, SCIs can potentially evolve to displace money as the measure of real wealth in economic life, especially if they are combined with community account-money systems that undercut destructive forms of accumulation.

     While it is beyond the scope of this essay to properly discuss green plans, alternative indicators or community currencies (all of which I treat more exhaustively in my book), my point is that universities have important roles to play in the generation of knowledge essential to green economic development.  Most students and many faculty would love to have their research serve community needs.  University departments could easily coordinate their work with that of the community plan and indicator projects.  To do this, however, they would by no means have to sacrifice their commitment to pure knowledge or to social criticism.  But universities would have to forsake their ivory tower status and make much more of their research and education relevant to community development.  There are already some precedents for this: the Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) programme of SSHRC in Canada, as well as the sustainability and community economics programmes of various university-related institutes in various developed countries.

Adult Education and Educational Reform

     For these university-connected initiatives to really succeed, important educational barriers, as I argued earlier, would have to be broken down.  This suggests a strategic role for adult education. As an official field of scholarship, AE is probably no more aware of potentials for alternative economic development than the rest of the educational system.  And yet, the most significant green alternative education that now exists takes place as adult education. Most of the expertise for green economic development now lay outside the university—in the solar energy societies, permaculture institutes, community shared agriculture enterprises, etc.  And this is where education also takes place.  My own course at the Metro Labour Education Centre is an example of this, as are workshops by Toronto Permaculture, the Kortright Centre for Conservation, the Rooftop Gardens Resource Group, the Greenest City community group, and other Toronto-area organizations.  Courses and training programmes for trades and professions (for example, in energy-efficient building) are also examples.   Many of these courses and workshops have overlapping or complementary content, and it makes sense for them to be listed together and for their organizers to coordinate efforts. This is already happening to some extent in some places, and new forms of internet communication are making this easier.

      Such coordination might be one fulcrum to begin to exert greater influence on the established educational system.  Some of the participating trade organizations or environmental groups are already engaged in lobbying local government, and many have connections to school boards and their continuing education programmes.  The environmental movement in particular should put more emphasis on establishing an educational network that both formalizes its educational tasks and systemizes connections with the rest of the community.  But this, of course, assumes that the environmental movement becomes more aware of, and proactive about, economic alternatives.
Over time, more local governments will undoubtedly become aware of green community economic development as a holistic alternative to the corporate-global model of development—particularly as the destructive impacts of that model become more apparent.   When local planners, politicians and policy-makers do become more aware, it will become much easier to move education in this direction.  But conversely it will be much easier to win over local policy-makers if people are already developing the skills necessary to create an ecological economy.

    Concerning more specific practical initiatives and strategies, I will let readers, be they primarily educators, adult education scholars, or environmentalists, take it from here.  My basic concern is that our fatalism about existing economic relationships has great implications for the environment, for our communities and for education.  Real environmental education has to help us find ways to reintegrate our work and forms of production back into the natural world.  This would entail a fundamental transformation of education itself, and an explosion of learning which is now largely confined to marginalized realms of adult education.