Earth centred learning

Education is of paramount importance in establishing a right relationship with the earth in future generations. In the 50s and 60s I was taught about maths, science, languages and a little bit of history and geography. I had one day out in nature, plus quite a few murderous cross-country runs I was not properly trained for. Luckily I lived on the edge of a city and wandered around the surrounding fields; most children today are not so lucky.

Modern educational thinking and practice is much better than this, but they fight such a materialistic paradigm. Look at the world and its trends; there is way more to do.

Another blog post by Bill Graham has distilled some of the thinking of educator David Orr into seven propositions for earth-centred learning. Let’s hope they become more widely understood and applied. I’ve edited his points for my own understanding

  1. All education is environmental education.
    [Conventional education, for the most part, excludes our dependence on nature.]
  2. Environmental issues are complex and cannot be understood through a single discipline or department.
    [Most institutions are discipline centered.]
  3. The study of place is a fundamental organizing concept for education.
    [Formal education prepares students to reside, not to inhabit. The inhabitant and a place mutually shape each other.]
  4. For inhabitants, education occurs in part as a dialogue with a place and has the characteristic of a good conversation.
    [Good conversation with nature has the purpose of establishing what is here, what nature will permit, and what nature will help us do here.]
  5. Environment education should change the way people live, not just how they talk.
    [Real learning is participatory, experiential, and interdisciplinary, not just didactic. Teachers function best as facilitators, and students are expected to be active agents in defining what is learned and how.]
  6. Experience in the natural world is both an essential part of understanding the environment and conducive to good thinking.
    [Understanding nature demands a disciplined and observant intellect.]
  7. Education that addresses the challenge of building a sustainable society will enhance the learner’s competence with natural systems.

Featured image is of Himalaya rivers and snow, from NASA.


Marine biologist Bill Graham writes some excellent blog posts (latest example) on the subject of what might broadly be called ecoliteracy or systems thinking, concepts developed many years ago now by Fritjof Capra and others. I think that one of the problems we have is that neither of these terms has immediate impact on more than the minds of those interested in these things. That be as it may, this is important work.

Bill has the admirable aim of encouraging educators to bring about a generation of children that really understand the interconnectedness of ourselves with all of nature, and ‘think sustainability’.

Here are just a few ideas quoted from this post.

“…much of humanity does recognize our dependency on Nature. In our “me” societies, our hubris suggests that we can control Nature. This arrogance prevents us from admitting that, while Nature can survive without us, we cannot survive without Nature. “

“An ecosystem is greater than the sum of its parts. It cannot be defined by looking separately at each of its interconnected parts. In addition, the high complexity of an ecosystem makes it impossible to predict.
The problem is that the society of mankind is unable to grasp this fundamental truth. Humanity fails to see that we are part of the relationship. We cannot stand aside from something that we are part of. If we affect Nature, we affect ourselves. For example, if we pollute the air, we might  suffer climate change.”

“Is there any hope of building an ecoliterate worldview of systems thinking within humans? I think so!! Despite the irresponsible ignorance of a large number of humans, many of our children and future generations do not hold this destructive point of view. Their minds are fresh and responsive to awe and wonder. Through environmental education programs that emphasize Earth’s web of life, they are likely candidates for embracing the idea of relationships and interdependence. By being shown how to identify and protect energy connections in Nature, they become effective stewards of our Earth.”

Bill Graham, blog

The hope for the future sustainability of human society needs people like Bill Graham. Try reading his post, and you might want to follow him.

Bill ends with a series of quotes from a recent article by Fritjof Capra in The Ecologist magazine, including the following:

Today, it is becoming more and more evident that concern with the environment is no longer one of many “single issues.” It is the context of everything else — of our lives, our businesses, our politics.”

“The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities, designed in such a manner that their ways of life — businesses, economies, physical structures, and technologies — do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”

Fritjof Capra, The Ecologist, April 2018

Postscript: See also Bill’s excellent essay Are Environmental Conservation Strategies Misguided?

Featured image shows a kingfisher flying through Cano Negro national park in Costa Rica, where there is great biodiversity and lots of kingfishers. Hastily shot with my Panasonic TZ80 travel zoom. What chance of getting a shot like this in the UK? Very small, and you’d be very lucky or extremely persistent.

Common Newt

8-year-old granddaughter has a new passion for pond dipping, and brings friends round to show them at every opportunity.

The main catch is baby common newts (efts). We had no ldea there were so many in the pond. Other catches included dragonfly larvae, pond skaters, spiders. The frogs hid.

This is a great way to get children interested in nature, and there was high excitement when a pretty well fully grown newt was caught in the net.

Later, another was caught and the 12-year-old gave a fortunately brief science lesson, capturing the poor newt in the birdbath for inspection before its release back to nature.

newt in birdbath

Interestingly, newts are nocturnal animals and spend the day in hiding, so maybe the ones in the pond are not yet fully grown.

Tuition fees

Is there a public interest in a certain percentage of the population being educated to degree level, and another percentage being inducted into various apprenticeships? Clearly yes.

So why is there resistance to this being funded at an appropriate level out of general taxation? Maybe because of the suspect belief that it is the individual who is the primary beneficiary – clearly not true in the case of people like nurses. And maybe because we have been educating too many people to a degree level that creates over-supply of various skills.

The other reason is that government resources are increasingly under pressure since 2007, as the system itself founders, compounded by efforts to reduce the size of the State itself.

But tuition fees are now totaly discredited because of their severe implementation, leaving young people with an excess of £50000 of debts when embarking on life. In addition to the known problems of housing costs, poorer pensions and reduced opportunities for highly paid work. Crazy, an inter-generational injustice.

This should never have been cast as a debt – a ‘graduate tax’ or progressive taxation would have been a different matter. Strange that this one betrayal of their own voters is probably the reason for the low Liberal Democrat polling in the last two UK general elections. And Labour’s resurgence in tbe recent election is probably significantly down to their promise to abandon tuition fees.



Education of a materialist

My school years centred around the 1950s in Lincoln. Science was king. I well remember the reverence accorded to white-coated boffins on the television (when we eventually got one). What they said was treated as gospel. The pressure from teachers was for the sciences. This was the future, what the country needed. Humanities were second best, for those with no aptitude for science.

Religion was singing in morning assembly, and when we kids were sent to the Methodist chapel on Sundays. The minister warned us of the dangers of alcohol, while parents kept away and did the garden. Yet we loved the occasional lay preacher who came with song and speeches that stirred our soul with their passion. Except we had no concept of soul.

Spirituality was something we secretly found out about through reading library books. It seemed to be all to do with séances, ouija ouija boards and magic. It was not talked about in polite society, and definitely not recognised as valid by science.

So I emerged from the education system with an essentially materialistic scientific viewpoint, deeply sceptical of religion, and uncomprehending of spirituality. After studying mathematics, I took up what was then called computer science and soon became information systems engineering. I joined the everyday world of industry, married and started a family.

But I always had intimations that there might be something more, choosing the label ‘agnostic’ if pressed on my beliefs [atheism seemed to me to be irrational bravado].

This post is an extract from an article I wrote in 2002 on Science and Spirituality. Refer to that article if you want to read more of the story and how I eventually came to embrace spirituality as central to life.

Featured image of space scientist Dr Robert Goddard in 1924 by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons


An Outstanding Day

One day stands out of all the days I was at junior (age 7-11) school in Lincoln in the 1950s. Our year 2 class teacher Miss Abbott took us out for a walk, past the terraced houses, over the railway bridge, through the allotments, across fields, over the main road, to the South Common.

We found several ponds near each other on the common. We were introduced to frogs, newts, pondskaters, water boatmen, sticklebacks, damselflies, dragonflies and more. We caught some in nets, examined them, then put them back.

We had a packed lunch and played in the grass. And then we retraced our steps back to school,  were shown butterflies, bees and hoverflies along the way.

This is what stands out – ahead of all the undoubted progress we made in all other spheres over those years.

What a vital part of education, to cultivate that connection with nature – perhaps the most important part of all.

The state of the world suggests that this aspect has been neglected by many educators and those responsible for leading them over the many years since then. No amount of academic education can make up for the lack of that feeling connection with the natural world.

Featured image shows frogs and spawn

Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

Beyond the doors of perception into the dreaming of the earth

Review of a book by Stephen Harrod Buhner.

plant_intelligenceFor some time since reading Stephen Buhner’s book, I have been struggling to comprehend the full richness of what he puts forward. It is a book about how we perceive the world, about perceiving the depth, rather than the surface, of the world. For example, in this quote from Manuel Cordova Rios:

“As my glance wandered in the treetops I became aware of undreamed beauty in the details of the textures of leaves, stems, and branches. Every leaf… seemed to glow with a greenish golden light. Unimaginable detail of structure showed… A nearby bird sang… Exquisite and shimmering, the song was almost visible…”

Many people have had similar deep experiences, but the problem is to keep alive to them in a world dominated by surface things.

Buhner suggests that by opening up to and accepting our true selves we begin to see the world from a deeper perception than the mere surfaces of social conventions and laws.

Henry David Thoreau was one of the most eloquent exponents of our deep connection with nature. Robert Bly speaks of his books:

“As we read Thoreau’s work… we slowly become aware of a light in and around the squirrel, the ant, the woodcheck, the hawk, that belongs to them and not to the eyes observing or the brain producing words.”

Buhner states that his book “is about developing the skill of intentionally altering perception in order to perceive the light in and around the squirrel… about learning how to consciously use it as a tool of perception and cognition…” Now that is ambitious.

Let us get a sense of the work by looking at some of its main themes.

The doors of perception – sensory gating

Buhner suggests that every organism is deeply interwoven into the ecological matrix from which it is expressed. At the interface are located specific organs for perception of the exterior world in order to survive. The implication is that all life forms are self aware and intelligent and can determine meaning from the environment. Sensory gating allows the organism to focus on a limited aspect of world, rather than the myriad inputs; otherwise we would be overwhelmed with input. The gating becomes unconscious habit. We perceive what we expect to perceive.

Children are expected to fit into a defined ‘normal’ range of gating. The more wide open their gating channels, the more likely they will be seen as ‘not normal’. Newborns have minimal gating, so it develops during childhood. They don’t have the intermediary of language and see and hear ‘the old way’ before language. Developmental stages have different function and gating dynamics. Earlier stages can be reverted to at any particular point in time.

People trained in exterior focus (c.f. modern education) get stuck on surfaces and in language and can no longer find depths. This is pretty apparent in today’s Western societies.

Modern science has gated the meanings that come from the world, such as synchronicities, empathy with other life forms, and astrological significances – because they cannot be measured.

Opening the doors

“…the door to the soul is unlocked; you do not need to please the doorkeeper, the door in front of you is yours, intended for you, and the doorkeeper obeys when spoken to”

Robert Bly

Intentional activity or attention can override habitual gating. Once open more widely the gates can stay open; it is repetition that habituates the skill.

Goethe said: “every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us.” Paying attention, even at a later age, on a regular basis, can reset unconscious gating and make us more sensitive, eg to music. The capacity for opening the doors of perception is built into us. This gives a way through the problem articulated by Einstein (I paraphrase) “We cannot solve the problems of today with today’s thinking” …which tends to be interpreted in a purely logical way as a ‘paradigm shift’, but probably more importantly relates to the need to actually change our perception of the world.

Other ways are identified to override gating, include meditation, halluicinogenics, focus on feeling perception.

Once gating is more open, we become sensitive to more meaning. The existentialist despair at the loss of meaning in the world was actually a disease of the scientific enlightenment.

Opening to the feeling sense

Reclaiming the feeling sense, and developing it as a primary sensing tool, is one of the main ways to begin to enter more deeply into the metaphysical background of the world. The key is practice and focus on How does it feel? Every physical object has its own distinct feeling sense.

“recovering the response of the heart to what is presented to the senses”

James Hillman

Absorbed reading, writing, creative science, playing music can all involve a shift in consciousness involving feeling and invoking the ‘dream state’.

But in feeling, you will see the dark as well as the light. It takes courage to keep feeling and not close down. The first step is to feel everything you come into contact with. Determine whether you like it or not – get a sense of its underlying nature. ‘Why this response?’

Buhner covers issues that may arise, such as how to handle self caretaking, sensory overload, depression, taking on other people’s stuff and other issues. He references inner child / inner council work of e.g. John Bradshaw and Eric Berne.

Everything is intelligent and inextricably intertangled

The reductionist scientific viewpoint has led us up the garden path. The world is far more complex than that. It is living intelligence, described by concepts such as complex systems, self organisation, state changes, symbiogenesis, autopoiesis etc. Intelligence is manifested by all organisms – bacteria, plants, animals, ecoranges, the earth as Gaia… This was actually the direction of thinking taken by Darwin in his later works, eg seeing the root of a plant as its brain, sensitively using intelligence to navigate through the soil. Evolution sees common patterns emerging from bacteria through plants to animals and humans,

The natural world from which we are expressed when we are born is a context or scenario, continuously evolving, fluid not static, dynamic and co-evolving. The biosphere is so complex and evolving that we cannot know the consequences of anything we do.

Background and foreground are tightly coupled. There is a “softness of the boundary between inside and outside” (Lewontin). Opening of sensory gating channels leads to thinning of the boundary between self and nonself.

Golden threads of connection run through the world. We should trust our response to world; it has meaning. These threads touch us because something deep inside us needs what’s on the other end of that thread. [c.f. synchronicity, astrology.] We can immerse in the thread through feeling…

Reductionist education discourages this capability that is in us.

Psychotropics in the ecosystem

Psychotropics such as serotonin, psilocybin, DMT, cannabinoids are deeply interwoven into the structure of life, where they play a role in reducing gating. History shows such drugs as playing a role in ‘depatterning’ a certain percentage of the population to subsequent advantage. The explosion of creativity from the 1960s provides a fairly convincing example eg 1960s western music, Steve Jobs et al and the creation of modern IT. However:

“Those who open sensory gating are a danger to the fundamental underpinnings of the reductive paradigm.”

The psychotropics have been long banned by conventional society.

Natural Science and the Imaginal World

The naturalist Barbara McClintock was ostracised because not she was not reductionist. Her approach was to have the “patience to hear what the material has to say to you”, approach the world with a childlike self.

“the first step in the ecological reclamation of the self is to feel, to reclaim the parts of ourselves that feel and feel deeply.”

This ‘seeing’, rather than ‘looking’, requires empathy with the material. Something new arises. Meaning is grasped. This was the essence of Natural Science, and was the science of Goethe.

Sensory perceiving is what you do instead of thinking with your mind; it is ‘the old way’. This can lead to the encounter with other intelligence, such as the dolphin. Becoming aware of the living contextual field, we touch the one livingness, the Tao.

Science vs Barbarianism

In every field, the original pioneers who followed their heart without formal training are followed by the sober well-prepared ones, who have little wisdom to offer. We might take the example of the development of modern psychology and its subsequent codification, or the distortion of the ideals of the USA by some of its modern ‘leaders’.

Also, the early pioneers’ gating channels narrow with age… they become more conservative and pass this on to those following. We have only to look at the later Freud resisting the advances of those who came later to build on his foundations.

The disadvantage of formal schooling is that it takes a long time to discover that one has been poorly educated, to realise that what one was taught is a mere map giving but little insight into reality. I well recognise this syndrome.

Buhner is hard on science, suggesting that most published research claims are false, due to the influence of large scientific journals, sponsors, referees, and money. The dissociated mentation that has come from science – communication devoid of feeling – is seen as the hallmark of the ‘reasonable man’.

He suggests that sensory gating is a lot more open in every other culture on earth (compared to Western)! Yet we want to impose top down solutions on the rest of the world.

We have to use a different kind of thinking, step outside normal channels. We must become the new barbarians, asking “How does this feel to me?”, the crucial question every time… We will begin to be truly ourselves; our words beginning “to take on a depth that is truly alien in our time”.


This book is a tour de force presenting a world view that is immensely appealing to this reviewer, consonant with the views of many working towards a New Renaissance, and profoundly disruptive of the current Western majority paradigm. It requires a change in the way we perceive the world. This is what the real world is about.

New Renaissance Lectures

unity_houston_lecturesWe were having coffee at the Beans Cafe (again). There in the local free paper was this announcement of public lectures by the Association for Global New Thought, which reminded me of our initiation of lectures in the North West of England from 1993 to 2004.

Our local town of Knutsford in Cheshire, England had just established a new Civic Centre with a then-modern cinema hall. We speculated one day that this space would be ideal for public lectures similar to the Schumacher Lectures that were (and still are) run annually in Bristol by the Schumacher Society. We realised that this would only happen if someone did something about it, so we did, with a couple of local friends. Fortunately the hall was available on suitable evenings.

The first series of six ‘Knutsford Lectures’ was held, one evening per month, in the autumn/spring of 1993/4. We learned the ropes as we went, including booking the hall, arranging speakers, selling tickets, audio recording, and initially primitive publicity – hand-delivering leaflets, informing local media and developing mailing lists.

Our New Renaissance logo

The overall series theme was ‘Visions of a New Renaissance’, which remained the theme for all our lectures. The scope of change necessary in our thinking was indeed of a magnitude that implied the need for a New Renaissance, and vision was needed to set the direction (this is even more true today). Proverb 29:18 “Without vision the people perish” seemed apposite.

Individual speakers chose their own subject within that context. We even had a logo.

Our first speaker was Rt Hon David Ennals, one-time Secretary of State for Social Services in a Labour administration, also known as Baron Ennals – although he was obviously totally disinterested in titles and had a charming personality, as indeed did most of our speakers. Ennals accepted our invitation with alacrity, subsequently explaining that he was delighted to see such an initiative, knew how hard it is to get things off the ground, so wanted to support it. Despite being obviously somewhat handicapped by the ailments of age, he gave an entertaining talk which was much appreciated. Sadly David died a couple of years later.

We eventually ran three seasons of lectures, building up a small organising committee of enthusiasts. I think Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski probably hit the nail on the head when he said to me that I was involved in organising the lectures because that was my process of educating myself. I hope it also helped others.

Our speakers included Jonathon Porritt, who gave us a taste of the problems organisers face, when he arrived over twenty minutes late with a ‘full house’ audience waiting. Other speakers included scientist Rupert Sheldrake, the Schumacher Society‘s own Satish Kumar, Stephan Harding from Schumacher College, and Peter Harper from the Centre for Alternative Technology. In conversation, Satish subtlely challenged us with ‘why not set up your own Schumacher Lectures?’, thus planting the seed that led us to start annual Manchester Schumacher Lectures in 1996, where Satish was our first speaker.

The Manchester events took place over a full day, with usually three speakers followed by a panel session, chaired by myself or Chris Lyons. Here we managed to attract sponsors, including the Ecology Building Society, who faithfully supported us throughout. And there was the provision of music, bookstalls, refreshments etc.

Memorable speakers included Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life, Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, novelist Lindsay Clarke, scientists Mae Wan Ho and Brian Goodwin, ex-bishop David Jenkins, activists George Monbiot and Ann Pettifor. Many speakers joined with the organisers in a post-event evening meal, which was usually enjoyed by all.

We also had a fair share of problems. Two well-known international ‘green’ speakers cried off late after committing to come; maybe Manchester was not prestigious enough for them. Fortunately, Herbie Girardet of the Schumacher Society was very helpful in finding late replacements. Also, two well-known UK speakers excused themselves from the agreed panel session, two others behaved in a rather ‘precious’ and demanding way, and there were often problems with the sound/AV systems. It is not always fun organising such events!

I think the stresses and strains eventually took their toll, and the energies of our committee reduced, without the renewing emergence of new blood. Eventually, after the 2004 lectures, we closed down the Manchester Schumacher Lectures, bequeathing our remaining resources to the Schumacher Society. But the spirit did not die; almost immediately new Schumacher events were set up in Leeds, and continue to this day under the banner of Schumacher North.

The need for new ideas showing up the inadequacy of current thinking is ongoing and will never die out – so there will always be the need for initiatives such as this, changing the world’s thinking one person at a time…

So, all good wishes to the organisers of such initiatives, whether run from a more religious perspective, such as the Association for Global New Thought (which I guess is part of the New Thought Movement) or from a more general spiritual or even secular perspective such as the ongoing Schumacher Lectures and the regular events held at Alternatives at St James Church in London.

PS Success of our New Renaissance lectures was dependent on the voluntary energies and good will of many people, but perhaps worth special mention are those who at different times formed the core of our organising committee: Joyce Hopewell, Annabel Burton, Chris Lyons, Mary McGregor, Joan Poulson, Mike Lowe, Esther Austin and Chris Wright.