Blogs >> We need sustainability education that acknowledges ancient wisdom says Stephen Harding

We need sustainability education that acknowledges ancient wisdom says Stephen Harding

Native american hands

Why do we need sustainability education? The most obvious answer to this question is because we are wrecking the planet.  Simple as that.

But what is not so simple is to figure out what an effective ‘sustainability education’ might be.  Clearly, just more intellect based, factual information doesn’t do the trick. 

We have lots of scientific information about the immense dangers for ourselves and the planet of biodiversity loss and climate change, but has this information made much difference? 

"By becoming hyper-rational we have ignored other, more ancient ways of knowing which are just as vitally needed if we are to create a truly effective education for sustainability."

Some, but not enough, since for the most part we carry on with business as usual as if there were no tomorrow. 

Of course climate science is immensely important, but it often turns people into deniers when presented in the wrong way.  So how on Earth can we get the message about the planetary emergency across to billions of people - and quickly?

The problem is the over-dominance of thinking in the modern world, the heritage of the ‘Enlightenment’ which swept across Europe in the 17th century and now dominates the world.

Thinking is very important indeed, and many good things have come out of the Enlightenment, but by becoming hyper-rational we have ignored other, more ancient ways of knowing which are just as vitally needed if we are to create a truly effective education for sustainability. 

As Jungian analyst and medical doctor Anthony Stevens has pointed out, to be truly healthy we need to be in touch with the ‘two million year old human’ within each of us.  He says that is the part of us connected to the ancient evolutionary lineage of humanity.

It is the bushman in us, the aboriginal, who holds all the wisdom about the ways of nature accrued throughout our evolutionary journey as bipedal apes on a wild planet. 

I take this idea even further back – we need to connect with our even more ancient lineage which stretches back through geological time to the first stirrings of life on our planet, and even beyond that into cosmological time to the very birth of the cosmos itself.

The ancient one in us is tuned to the cycles of nature, to the deep languages of the Earth in bird song, thunder, river speech, wind speech and the myriad non-verbal ways in which our animate earth speaks to us. 

This is the one in us who knows the immense value of nature and who therefore loves it and revers it as the wisest grandparent of all. 

This is the one who delights in the sensory experiences gifted us by the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and touches of the more-than-human world that enfolds us. 

This is the one who knows how to decode the messages of dreams and who can intuit the deep meanings and purposes in the unfolding story of the cosmos itself.
  
‘Education’ means ‘to bring out’.   Modern education mostly ‘brings out’ our thinking, but not much else.  We need thinking, but a genuine education for sustainability would also bring out the two million year old human, or as I prefer it, the 13 billion year old being that we are – the one that was there at the very birth of the cosmos.
 
The first step is to drop the word ‘sustainability’ and replace it with ‘Gaia’, for the kind of education we have developed here at Schumacher College for the last thirty years is a Gaian education which helps us find the 13 billion year old human in us by integrating our thinking, valuing, feeling and sensing in service of our planet and all her species.

Of course we cultivate out thinking in the class room by exploring science, economics, design, agriculture and other areas.

But we also spend a lot of time just sitting in a ‘Gaia spot’ out in the woods until we calm down enough to engage in deep conversations with trees, rivers, the wind and the birds. 

We learn how to grow our own food by working the land together. We learn how to make things with our own hands.

We learn how to pay attention to dreams and to the inner lives of both ourselves and our fellow learners.  We learn how to celebrate.

In all these ways we learn how to be simple again, how to be modern  bushwomen and bushmen, tuned into the living fabric of our lustrous planet. 

We fall in love with Gaia, and, now fully ‘educated’,  we at last come home.

Stephan Harding is programme coordinator for the current MSc Holistic Science and Estate Ecologist at the Dartington Estate.

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