Environment Environmental Education Thinking

Is loving the local enough?

Recently, the local has emerged on the scene and seemingly into the collective consciousness of urban Canadians (or Torontonians, at least). Evidence the perspective behind such ideas as “the 100-mile diet” what is nearby is better for ourselves and, in turn, when the local improves, so does the world.

I personally have advocated for a kind of environmental education that focuses on meaningful first-hand experiences with the more-than-human. The underlying logic of this, in short, is that in coming to know what is around you, you’ll be more likely to become interested, invested or aware. This kind of attitude is summed-up by Stephen J. Gould in 1993’s Three Little Piggies when he writes:

Yet I also appreciate that we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love (but only appreciate in some abstract sense). So let them all continue the films, the books, the television programs, the zoos, the little half acre of ecological preserve in any community, the primary school lessons, the museum demonstrations, even … the 6:00 A.M. bird walks. Let them continue and expand because we must have visceral contact in order to love. We really must make room for nature in our hearts. (p. 40)

I find it to be a compelling argument and want to agree with Gould. The notion of love makes me hesitate a bit, in part because nature has been romanticized to death and I want to move beyond that. I would rather say we say we need to make space for nature in our consciousness and daily lives. Key to my interest in place-based environmental education is an interest in the local. And this focus on the local in environmental education is not exclusive to me. Place-based education has traction in the minds of environmental education researchers and educators.

Underlying the local is a logic of concentric circles of betterment: if we take care of what is near to us, the goodness will radiate out. In a sense, the CBC’s one-million acts of green subscribes to this same kind of logical underpinning. And this notion of localism is compelling. But is it any good?

I do see danger in the local: what happens when one perceives that the integrity of the one’s own local is threatened? In some cases it leads to NIMBY-ism ((NIMBY is short for “Not In My Backyard” )) where, uncritically, “my” local is seen as having primary importance over all other locals. So, a hierarchy exists in these these concentric circles—value emanates from somewhere, and the nexus of value is constructed to be as as geographically proximate to the self as possible.

Val Plumwood echoes similar concerns in Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling. Her argument in a nut-shell: if we exist in a culture that creates a false consciousness of the local (which she calls place) then the local, her her words, is a “fake.” Fake because “privileged places are more lovable than other places, so privileged people get more opportunity to love their places . . . because the degrading forms of production go on in other places.” ((Source)) Plumwood goes on to argue that there needs to be an ethic of place rather than simply a sense of place.

This is where it comes back to environmental education, IMHO. How do we go about creating an ethic of place? I’ve been busy lately interviewing birders for my dissertation. What has become evident is that birders do a good job of noticing the here-and-now: being “in place,” as it were, to attend to the world around them. Yet, a trend appears in which some have a hard time with that which is beyond their immediate sphere of awareness. Take, for example, when I asked if they think about the migratory birds they attempt to see in Ontario as they’re overwintering (in Central America) or nesting (in the Boreal Forest). With exceptions, the majority do not. Yet, in the case of migratory bird conservation, it is these distant geographical places that need attention.

I’m just beginning to think and work with these ideas. I certainly don’t have a simple answer at the moment. But I do have directions that I’ll be going. The first has to do with our notions of space: we live with an euclidean worldview of space ((A location in 3-D space that can be pinpointed with an X, Y & Z coordinate)) that emphasizes that which is nearby. Perhaps environmental education needs to do a better job of playing with those notions of space. How would that be done?