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Dr Andy Letcher: How can engaged ecology help us?

tree roots

You probably don’t need reminding how dire is the climate emergency and all the social and economic problems that go along with it, how intractable they seem.

You’re probably reading this blog looking for answers; how can I act in ways that don’t perpetuate the problem?

How can I make a difference when climate heating is, what eco-philosopher Timothy Morton has called, a ‘hyperobject’: a problem so vast, so all pervasive, so entangled I simply can’t grasp it, let alone concoct a solution?

Welcome to the field of engaged ecology, a trans-disciplinary subject, bringing together the best thinking from the humanities and the sciences.

At Schumacher College, it is offered as a liberal arts programme that sits at the cutting edge of the new and emerging field of Environmental Humanities that encourages students to find their own answers to the world’s pressing problems. 

Above all Engaged Ecology explores our relationship with place.

If no one person can conceive the entirety of the crisis, then we each have access to a particular aspect.

By coming on the master's programme students will be encouraged to fortify what they do and what they know already with theory and practice, so as to better go into the world ready to make a difference, no matter how small. Together that may add up to something world-changing.

For example, what does it mean that we are ‘holobionts’, each one of us a teeming ecology of bacteria, fungi and other organisms without which we could not survive?

Where does the human begin and end? What does selfhood even mean? Engaged Ecology entertains scientific ecology and posthuman thought to see how they meet and what they tell us about being human at a time when all the old certainties are vanishing.

Unusually too, Engaged Ecology centralises practice. Every topic will begin with students doing something and then reflecting upon its meaning in the light of their reading.

We’re very used to buying material objects with no idea of the true cost of their production. But what happens when we witness that provenance firsthand?

How does our relationship to things change? How do we feel taking the life of a tree to satisfy our material needs? And how do we treat that object differently now that we know exactly from whence it came?

Engaged Ecology is being designed with a distinct learning arc. In the first term, two long modules run back to back. In one we dive into ecology, in all its myriad meanings, to investigate different ways of engaging with the world-at-large. We turn our hands to traditional scientific ecology, phenological observation, natural history and nature writing, as well as less orthodox means of engagement such as using 'sit spots', the Goethean method, deep listening, and shamanic journeying, to reflect on how each opens certain modes of access and closes others.

In the second module we take a hands on approach to making. Each module will inform the other, so if we ferment sauerkraut in the making class, we will investigate the science of lacto-fermentation and of symbiosis in the ecology class.

In the second term we have two shorter modules, also running in parallel. One looks at the Self, and what Michel Foucault called ‘technologies of the self’, to critique Western notions and to ask what an ‘ecological self’ might look like. What role is there for spirituality in achieving it?

The other investigates community, living together, to ask why it is that we exclude as we include, by dint of race or gender or sexuality or ability or even species. How can we make visible our blindspots without giving full rein to our fragilities? Again, each module weaves into the other.

The second term ends with a module on ecological citizenship, that asks students to consider how they will act in the world after the programme ends.

It addresses difficult questions of why activism often ends up mirroring the very thing it opposes.

Is there another way of being active, a delicate activism or even a post-activism, that avoids the twin poles of burn out on the one hand and bitterness or despair on the other?

This module leads deliberately into the final module, the dissertation, an extended essay that allows students to dive deeply into a topic of their choosing, and to explore it at length.

Fully residential, the programme allows students to fully explore the ecology and phenology (the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life) of grounds of Schumacher College, which sits at the edge of the beautiful Dartington Estate, and the wider Devon countryside, and to take back that knowledge so as to apply it at home.

The needs of the time are great. Our hope is to provide a truly radical masters programme that’s as challenging as it’s inspirational, and that will equip graduates with the tools they need to make a difference in the world.

Dr Andy Letcher is the programme leader for MA Engaged Ecology which begins in January 2021.