Muddying the Waters

This post by Elsa Lee is the second part of a three part series

In this second instalment of our blog mini-series I take the opportunity to expand on some of the conceptual work that underpins our study. Our explanations will focus very much on what is meaningful for CW2GC; and will be contextualised in practice in the United Kingdom.  

Education for Sustainable Development has a long (and proud) tradition in the United Kingdom.  It has been around in some form or another in schools since the 1800s as nature walks and the like, and then in the 1960s as Rural Education through to when it became Environmental Education in more recent times, strongly connected to the work of Rachel Carson.  It is currently most well known as Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and is an important element of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, where it can be found alongside global citizenship education (GCE) in Goal 4.7.  You can read about Environmental Education/Education for Sustainable Development/Green School movements in England and around the world in the upcoming publication: Green Schools Globally: Stories of Impact on Education for Sustainable Development (Gough et al, 2020) which provides a whistle-stop world tour of how EE/ESD has played out in different countries.  The book includes descriptions of the historical trajectory of each country that has influenced the contemporary state of ESD. The chapter on the UK (focused mainly on England), written by myself, Paul Vare and Ann Finlayson, sets out the different influencers on EE/ESD in the UK as we have experienced them. These include policy initiatives, NGOs and Business, society and mainstream media and academia. Of course now we would add the Youth Strike for Climate, but when we wrote the chapter in 2018 Greta Thunberg had only just begun her campaigning. The very wide-ranging body of stakeholders that have been involved in how ESD has come to be practiced matters because it goes some way towards explaining the breadth of its church.  

In times such as these, precipitated by the globally connected nature of our daily lives, where we are forced to slow down our lives, the impact of human activity on the planet has been starkly illuminated. Images of diminishing levels of pollutants such as nitrous oxide and the photographs of mountains now visible that have not been seen for generations entrench our acceptance of what has come to be known as the Anthropocene in ways otherwise unimaginable. These images concretise the matter of fact-ness of the science, but they also highlight the complexities of balancing human needs  and wants with environmental integrity, and here is where ESD becomes political.  The politics has made it difficult for schools to tackle ESD, and has influenced the current situation where young people feel that they have not been equipped for dealing with the challenges that climate change and other outcomes of environmental degradation are engendering.  The current situation in schools in England and elsewhere around the world is in part an outcome of this tension and it is a ‘wicked problem’ yet to be resolved.  

What becomes clear here is the potential for citizenship education and global citizenship education to take on these tricky political questions;  not in an attempt to solve them necessarily, rather to use them as means to understand how democratic systems function in varying socioeconomic contexts, and what we all can do to support social change, if that is on balance what we conclude. Reaching a point of balance requires the development of a thorough understanding of the plurality of perspectives involved, and here are fertile grounds for learning. Furthermore, whilst the National Curriculum for Citizenship in England does not specifically mention the environment it provides many opportunities for teachers and students to choose to take on local environmental problems (local river pollution, for example) and research and initiate solutions.  However, what about the sense of being not just a local or national citizen, but a global citizen? What does it mean to be a member of a global community when there is no actual legal framework for such?  How can we see ourselves as tiny insignificant individuals, in those terms?  In a world where the rights of citizenship are unequally distributed, how does the relatability of this concept vary?  And yet the current public health crisis has thrown how globally connected and globally vulnerable we ALL are into stark relief.  And it has also shown how unequally this risk is shared, for example between people living with widely varying access to basic amenities like soap and water for handwashing, and people with access to private medical treatment.  If our education systems are not able to make real this sense of being interconnected across geo-political space, then how, in the future, are we able to militate against problems such as pandemics and climate change? And if we do not teach our children about these problems and how they are experienced in different geo-political contexts, then how will they be able to navigate a world shaped by global forces? These are indeed critical problems and it seems unconscionable that our young people (those that are often the most powerless in our societies, that we have been successively disenfranchised for generations) should be the ones to bear the burden of solving them.  

It was with this in mind that I sought a material, that could connect young people from their local places to the wider world.  Water, matter which cycles around Earth with astonishing rapidity and which is also very meaningful in an aesthetic sense to humanity (more so than air perhaps), seemed the perfect solution. And so I set out to plan a way of researching this. The extant research on the relationship between human and water systems is mostly located in a relatively newly emerging area of research called hydrosociology (or sociohydrology).  Hydrosociology is an important development from earlier forms of research into water systems (i.e. hydrology) where the role of humans was often absent, leading to, some would argue, incomplete understandings of the ways in which waterways and water bodies evolve. A significant discussion point within that literature concerns the value of an integrated understanding of sociology with hydrology to support a more holistic understanding of water security amongst other things, but it is, of course, a complex undertaking. For the purposes of our research, we focus on the literature that interrelates humans and water that is relevant to our contention that water provides a conduit for understanding how interconnected we are across Earth.

Thus far, our research has shown that the young people on projects with hydrosociological characteristics who have engaged in educational activities of an environmental kind (with a water theme), have a seed of the notion of interconnectedness germinating. At this time of writing our research has focused on our South African cases and here there are cultural contexts that seem to influence how a sense of being globally connected is appropriated; although we are still in the process of interrogating our data and discussing our findings with our participants, hence we do not put too much weight to this thinking yet. Nevertheless, it seems that whilst water may act as a useful conduit to the sense of global connectedness, there are sluice gates and channels and the like to be considered. Our next instalment will begin to unpack some of these complications, including the current pandemic and its affects.