Thursday, May 28, 2009

Biodiversity regions and education

The U.N.'s International Coordinating Council of the Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB-ICC) announced today that it has added 22 new reserves to UNESCO's list of World Network of Bioreserves. This got me to thinking a little bit about how we might think about this in educational terms. In what follows, I'll just throw out a few ideas for people to consider regarding the Bioreserves themselves, the problems that such things might entail because of "sustainable development," and how we as teachers might think about Biorserves in our own teaching and learning.

The goal of the MAB-ICC program is as follows:
Biosphere Reserves are areas designated under the UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme to serve as places to test different approaches to integrated management of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine resources and biodiversity. As such, Biosphere Reserves are visualized as sites for experimenting with and learning about sustainable development approaches under the MAB Programme, particularly during the on-going UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014).
These sites are seen as modeling so-called "sustainable development." They are scattered around the globe in several countries, including Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Venzuela, North Korea, South Korea, Australia, India, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Lebanon, Syria, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, and Malaysia (for a full list follow this link). In Lagunas Montebello, "coffee production has shifted to organic production with organic conversion of the grain which, together with reforestation and tourism activities have emerged as alternatives which support the sustainable development of the area" (see picture at right) while other areas range from biological reserves without human occupation to areas where indigenous people practice their own means of sustenance.

In a bit of troubling news to those who might be interested in preserving the diversity of tribal and indigenous peoples, some of the entries in the MAB-ICC new list indicate drawing indigenous people into the global capital market. For example, in Indonesia where the tribes of Highland New Guinea have already been "civilized" a great deal by Australian developers in the 20th century, the report states, "Initial studies indicate good potential for sustainable economic development using flora and fauna for the inhabitants’ economic welfare. The site is also an interesting experimental area regarding carbon dioxide (CO2) in the context of carbon trade mechanisms." Wealthy countries running the U.N. and other global development organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund can "develop" such areas into so-called "pristine" eco-tourism spots. I read this right now (and some further searching is probably warranted) as a means for polluting countries to alleviate their CO2 guilt with other people's resources. It also serves to bring whoever the occupants are in the area within the unsustainable cash and credit global economy governed by these agencies - the very agencies at the heart of the global climate problem. Suffice it to say that I am both excited about these places and skeptical of the people's intentions regarding "sustainable development."

Sustainable development is a highly contested term because it depends on whose development we are attempting to sustain. Do we "sustain" global economic development for profit-oriented growth markets or are we trying to create practices that sustain human populations well within nature's carrying capacity? The U.N. has stated in its most recent Human Development Report 2007/2008 that our current consumption economies are unsustainable and are affecting the natural environment at an unprecedented rate and scale such that, according to the IPCC, our consumption of natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions, "Observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases." We can hope that the U.N. is writing us more toward real sustainability by touting the Bioreserve accomplishments. But without the teeth of enforcement and without a genuine ethical commitment by member nations and big polluters like the United States, China, India, Canada, and Australia, the U.N. can do little but write a lot of economic, educational, scientific, and ethical rhetoric. How do we sustain sustainable development if indeed we do?

Maybe we can integrate two ideas here. On the one hand, let's think about our schools as potential bioreserves. This is a very David Orr idea that integrates the working operation of the school into its local natural environment. We, as teachers, can be asking how we can alter our educating practices and spaces in such a way that they harmonize with the bioregion, interact wholly and sustainably within the seasonal changes of our areas, and work to feed us in these spaces. This brings us to a comment that Zack Bullock left the other day:
As future teachers, it seems that we are really talking about being future farmers. I say this because as long as there is still a strong industrial division of labor in our communities, not everyone is going to be able to contribute equally to the production of food. Teachers could take on the majority of this work, making their community teaching be in part, or wholly, their community's farming.
I really think that Zack is onto something here. We may be on our way to envisioning some of what the school is and does as a communal farm where teachers and children work together to sustain themselves, their communities, and learn about the outside world as well. The teacher needs to be a generalist and not a specialist. The divided disciplines of the university need to integrate and merge with one another in people such that we can see the relationships between things while still developing our ability to make distinctions. That is to say that I think the primary or secondary school teachers of the future needs to be able to genuinely put together a set of experiences that links history, literature, arts, mathematics, the sciences, and the soil within the context of where they live. They need to be able connect things themselves and work with other people in a convivial educational environment such that these now disparate disciplines unify in experience.

In a way, one such initiative seems to be the Four Corners School at the converging borders of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. They have a program called Bioregional Outdoor Education Project (BOEP) that seeks to develop that "teaches K-8 teachers how to teach the core curriculum in a hands-on place-based way through a two-year series of workshops, inservices, and mentoring." It uses the desert Southwest as a way to understand science and science as a way to understand the desert Southwest, creating a feedback loop of knowledge, inquiry, experience, and place that (assuming it works out of course) shows the interconnectedness of the bioregion. Why do we need to stop with science though? We don't.

Obviously, teachers know things outside of their disciplinary focuses. Elementary school teachers often transgress the boundaries of narrow disciplines because they do full units on the ocean, the human body, and so on. But in middle and high school the disciplines fracture and the stultifying egotism of academic segregation sets in so that expert disease sets in and people worry about trampling on others' feet. And the whole testing regime of NCLB reinforces it all.

I suppose that what I am proposing, to some degree, is a kind of recalibration of all schooling such that teachers are institutionally encouraged to be interdisciplinary, work together in the same classroom, to merge their classrooms with and develop their curricula in the context of their bioregion, and to do that in no small part through developing the school as a farm. This would mean incorporating economics and ecology so that, to paraphrase David Orr, no one learning about economics can see the economy as separate from the physical, chemical, and biological systems of which it is a part. Teaching a book like Frank Herbert's Dune can be contextualized within an integrating lesson plan about deserts, religions, myth, human psychology, and politics. Most to the point, developing curricula that are grounded in and extend from the places where we live in ways like Elliott Wiggington's Foxfire are perhaps most ideal because they initiate the interaction of children and their cultural and ecological spaces.

That would be sustainable development. Such a network of schools would surely earn Bioreserve status. How curious that the basic thing I am proposing was in some sense known by our ancestors for thousands of years before the advent of industrial technologies.


  1. I am utterly uninterested in the UN's attempts to support sustainability; mostly, because I think that the UN is uninterested. First, although it admits that "our current consumption economies are unsustainable and are affecting the natural environment at an unprecedented rate and scale," it only sanctions sustainable activities in the most remote locations, distant from where the destruction humans are unleashing upon the planet is occurring. New York City needs to be designated a Biopreserve. Second, the UN is behaving like sustainability is some kind of "mysterious practice" whose character needs to be discovered and fleshed out through careful experimentation. Sustainability has already existed and still, in some places, exists. As Peter realized at the end of his entry, he is, I too am, advocating for ecological practices that are, in some instances, generations old. Therefore, the UN is stating that it cares for sustainability, but in truth is merely paying lip-service to urgent work that must be done, and that is being done at the small, community scale.

    Such community and local work is the most important ecological and educational work in which we can partake. This is also the exact kind of work that receives the least amount of formal, normal, institutional support. A look into the politics and economics of starting and maintaining community gardens in our cities will reveal the struggle communities face in opposition to these institutions. I'll be interested in what the UN is saying when they give grants to low-income communities to buy plots of land to develop gardens and schools. In the meantime, let's keep looking to the kind of grassroots action, like the direct action currently underway in West Virginia to stop mouintaintop removal, to keep our eyes and spirits on the prize.

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