October 22, 2017

A theoretical non-disciplinary approach to environmental education

Most environmental education in our schools and Universities remains rooted in apparently value-free ‘scientific’ knowledge. However modern science has been powerfully instrumental in shaping our minds to accept the worldview of industrialism, and the replacement of the living biosphere with the dysfunctional artificial ‘technosphere’ that is the inevitable if unplanned product of industrialism.

Unpublished, 1985, in reply to a request for advice.

I assume that my role is to provide an overview of environmental education. I would like this overview to be a theoretical one. Also I would like to take environmental education in its widest possible sense as but an instance of a much wider principle – that which involves the adaptation of natural systems at all levels of organisation to their respective environments.

I must start by defining the key terms: environment and education. It is one of the main problems that we must face in discussing theoretical issues that the basic terms used have rarely been properly defined. Thus Margaret Masterman shows that Kuhn uses the term ‘paradigm’ in no less than 21 different ways. [1] Merrell lists several dozen different definitions of the term ‘competition’ as used by theoretical biologists in their discussions of natural selection. [2]

Woodger considers that biology is less precise than physics, not because its terms are less neatly quantified, but because they are so inadequately defined. [3] Of course, to quantify terms that are used in a vague and ambiguous manner can but serve to convey a spurious impression of precision. So we must try to define our terms with greater care.

By the term ‘environment’ we usually mean simply ‘that which is out there’. At the same time, we do not distinguish between two distinct categories of the things that are out there:

  • on the one hand, what we might call our ‘natural environment’
  • and on the other, what we might call our ‘unnatural environment’.

In the UK, for instance, the Department of the Environment’s main function is to build motorways and housing estates. These, they assure us, are as much a part of our environment as is what remains of our forests and meadows that must be cemented over in order to construct them.

If we distinguish between the natural biosphere and the largely unnatural technosphere and regard them as being in competition with each other, then it is only reasonable to distinguish in the same way between the processes that brought these two organisation of matter into being.

The former is taken as having been brought into being by the process of evolution. We must thus regard the latter as being the product of a process that is distinct from, and in competition with, the evolutionary process, one that we can refer to as the ‘nti-evolutionary’ process and that is normally referred to, misleadingly, as ‘development’ or still more misleadingly as ‘progress’.

The former tends towards increasing the complexity and stability of the biosphere, the latter being designed to satisfy purely short-term, economic and political ends, tending in precisely the opposite direction.

The concept of progress is, perhaps, the most fundamental metaphysical assumption, underlying modern science and, indeed, the world view of industrialism with which we have all been imbued from our most tender childhood. Yet it is only credible if the evolutionary process is taken as being purely random, which means that it can be redirected at will by man, in the interests of satisfying these short-term economic and political benefits.

It is only credible too, if the product of this random process be regarded as equally random and hence totally malleable, so that both our societies and the ecosystems of which they are part, can be re-shaped by us at will with relative impunity. This is a notion of course, that is difficult to reconcile with our knowledge of the functioning of self-stabilising traditional societies and of that of the self-stabilising ecosystems of which these societies were differentiated parts.

The line of demarcation between the natural and the unnatural environments is indeed hard to draw in terms of our current world-view. Is the man-made environment, for instance, necessarily unnatural? Clearly not. The most natural environment we can imagine – that provided by a virgin forest for instance, may contain man-made structures, if nothing more than the shelters built by the hunter-gatherer bands that might inhabit it.

But these shelters can be regarded as part of the forest ecosystem’s basic structure. Their builders fulfil their differentiated functions within this ecosystem, just as do all other living things that inhabit it.

Since the Neolithic revolution however, and still more with the industrial revolution, our numbers have increased dramatically as has the per-capita impact of our activities on the ecosystems that we inhabit.

As this has occurred, so has the man-made world of the ‘technosphere’ (or the ‘surrogate world’ as it has also been referred to) cease to constitute a differentiated part of the world of living things or the biosphere or the ‘real world’ from which it derives the resources required for its construction and maintenance and to which it consigns its waste products, and, it must follow that, as the former expands so must the latter correspondingly contract and deteriorate.

There is a second aspect of our environment that is generally ignored, even, I might add, by many otherwise enlightened theoretical biologists.

By ‘environment’, as I have already mentioned, we usually mean no more than ‘what is out there”‘, implying, by default at least, that it is something vague and shapeless and hence random and malleable.

This attitude is very much a product of reductionist science. It is an attitude that he led people to concentrate on examining the nature of the constituent parts of the biosphere, while totally neglecting the way in which these parts are organised into larger wholes.

Those who have considered biospheric organisation holistically, such as Paul Weiss [4] and Arthur Koestler [5] are struck, above all, by its hierarchical nature.

By this is meant that systems are organised to form larger systems which in turn are organised into still larger systems. This means that at each level of organisation, a system together with its immediate environment constitutes the larger system of which it is a differentiated part.

Thus a cell, together with its immediate environment, can be taken as constituting a particular organ or tissue; just as a man, together with his particular environment, constitutes a family, a community and the ecosystem of which these social units are, or should be, differentiated parts.

In other words, rather than see our environment as just ‘what is out there’, we should see it instead as a hierarchy of larger systems, and still larger systems of which we are, or should be, but a differentiated part; all of which affect us to a varying degree and, which in turn, are affected by us in a whole set of different ways.

This means that the study of the natural environment is, or should be, a very much more difficult subject than it is currently seen to be. It should cut across all disciplines. It should involve the study of our relationship to the biosphere, or world of living things, as a whole. This, in turn, requires the development of a unified, or non-disciplinary science, of the biosphere for which purpose scientific methodology, as it is seen today, seems very inadequate, which perhaps explains why such a unified science has never been developed in spite of the considerable efforts made in this direction by Von Neurath, Carnap, Reichenbach and the other members of the institute of Unified Science which thrived between the 1930s and the 1950s. [6]

In any case, it implies that when we talk of how man should relate to his environment, we mean how he should relate to the larger system in which he has evolved to fulfil a differentiated function. It is the relationship of the part of the whole.

Now this relationship, or more precisely, interrelationship, can be shown to be governed by a specific set of laws. To talk of laws in biology involves a further departure from the current scientific world-view. Laws have long ago been demoted to rules and, with the development of statistical method, they have been further demoted to the status of mere ‘statistical regularities’.

I shall take laws to mean constraints that natural systems must be subjected to, if they are to fulfil their differentiated functions within the hierarchy of the natural systems of which they are part.

To deny the operation of such constraints is to deny the existence of order within the biosphere, which makes the later meaningless and indeed unintelligible to science or any other cognitive system. Again, whether we choose to dignify such constraints with the title of laws, is but a matter of convention.

Now, there is a principle that is of particular relevance to the understanding of man’s relationship with his environment, which we might call the Principle of Holistic Control.

It states that a system controls the sub-systems that compose it. Paul Weiss is possibly the biologist who has most consistently pointed this out, and who has described in greatest detail how it occurs. [4]

If one looks at the constituents of a cell under a microscope, so it appears, one can see what seems to be a lot of apparently random activity. The constituents are undergoing constant change, yet the cell itself, that they compose, remains relatively stable. The same principle can be shown to apply at all other levels of organisation including that of the stable structured (tribal) society, the behaviour of whose members may appear anarchic at first sight, being nevertheless effectively controlled by public opinion, reflecting traditional values, and further controlled by the censure of the elders and the fear of offending the ultimate custodians of the traditional values: the ancestral spirits. [7]

This control of the parts by the whole, tends to be ignored by both cyberneticians and by many theoretical biologists, who like to think of a system’s behaviour as being exclusively controlled by the set of instructions with which it has been programmed; i.e. by its hereditary endowment. This is of course, not so of those biologists who have studied embryological development or epigenesis. [8]

In this process, the crucial role of the cytoplasm (the environment of the nucleus) and the womb (the environment of the developing foetus) are only too evident. They can be regarded as constituting ‘morphogenetic fields’ that apply a pressure on the developing processes subjected to them, to keep along specific ‘pathways’ [9] or ‘chreods’ [10] and ever to return to such pathways when diverted from them by random factors. [11]

Now this pressure is not a random one. It is highly teleological (I use the term consciously, in preference to the more scientifically respectable ‘teleonomical’). By keeping along these pathways, developmental processes achieve a viable end-state – a normal baby in the case of the embryological development process in man. If, on the other hand, they do not keep to these pathways, then a viable end-product is not achieved.

Now if we identify the environment of the nucleus and the environment of the developing foetus as the larger spatio-temporal systems of which the fertilised egg and the foetus are respectively part, then we can identify the pressure exerted by the morphogenetic fields as the pressure exerted on the sub-systems by the larger systems of which they are part.

Now fields do not only have to be postulated in order to explain epigenesis, they must even be postulated by physicists to understand the behaviour of atomic particles. [12] Sheldrake realises that they are needed too, to understand the behaviour of organisms. These, he suggests, should be referred to as ‘motor’ fields. It is undoubtedly the case that different types of behaviour are also ‘canalised’ or kept along certain pathways and must be, if specific end-products are to be achieved. [13]

Now these fields, which I think are best referred to as ‘behavioural fields’ (rather than motor fields) can clearly also be regarded as reflecting the influence of the environment and hence the family, the community and the ecosystem on the individuals that compose them. It is only when the behaviour of the individuals is maintained along the appropriate pathways or ‘chreods’ that it is satisfying the requirements of these larger systems and hence of the hierarchy of the biosphere as a whole.

That behaviour, which satisfies the behaviour of the parts, should also satisfy that of the whole, is a concept that is foreign to the world-view with which we have been imbued. It is in particular irreconcilable with the atomistic, and hence individualistic, view of the world which is required to rationalise and hence legitimise, the reductionist or analytical method. Also, the interests of the individual are visibly seen to conflict in many ways with those of the State of which he is a member. This problem disappears, of course, once the State is seen as but a recent product of the anti-evolutionary process, and the individual is seen, in normal conditions, to be a differentiated member of a family, a community and a society, whose respective interests can be shown to coincide (though nowadays unfortunately, these social units tend to disintegrate as the State gradually usurps their functions.) [14]

To understand the relationship between the parts and the whole, both at a biological and at a social level, really requires a fairly dramatic paradigm shift – from seeing the world as a random collection of competing organisms, to seeing it as the vast mutualistic enterprise that it really is. For the ecologist, this means rejecting the new quantitative and reductionist ecology, still more so the engineering approach of our systems ecologists, and returning to a variant of the old-fashioned organismic ecology of Cowles, Clements, Allee etc. [15]

Now what, we might ask, is the object of the control exerted by a system on its component sub-systems? The answer is to ensure that the latter fulfil their differentiated functions within the former’s ‘internal environment’ and thereby maintain its stability or homeostasis.

It is the failure on the part of our theoretical biologists to realise the all-pervasiveness of this principle that accounts for what I regard as the most obvious deficiency of the Neo-Darwinist theory of Evolution.

If the environment is just seen as ‘what is out there’, i.e. as shapeless and random, then it could make sense that the ‘fittest’ as the Neo-Darwinists tell us, are the ones who most reproduce themselves. If, on the other hand, the environment is seen as the larger system of which a smaller system is but a differentiated part, (which means that the environment has a sophisticated ‘metabolism’ and an optimum structure of it own, that must be preserved if it is to maintain its stability or homeostasis,) then the parts must at all costs be prevented from proliferating in an uncontrolled way like a cancer. Indeed, the biggest reproducer, rather than being the fittest, is in fact the least fit; the one that least satisfies the requirements of the larger systems of which it is part. It is the one that must be most rapidly eliminated if this larger system is to survive.

Once one understands the hierarchical nature of the biosphere, and hence the non-randomness of the environment, the systems that survive, and hence, if we like, those that are the ‘fittest’, are those that have ‘learned’, or that have been ‘educated’ to fulfil their differentiated functions within the hierarchy of the biosphere i.e. those that are most perfectly ‘socialised’.

So much for the environment. We are now in a position to consider our second key term: ‘Education’.

Just as I have taken the term ‘environment’ in its widest sense, I shall also take the term ‘education’ in its widest sense. In fact, I shall consider what we call ‘education’ in the sense of the education of our youth, as but a specialised instance of a very much more generalised principle – one that occurs at every level of organisation within the biosphere.

For instance, at the cellular level, a new cell, like a new born baby, is ‘born’ with the complete hereditary endowment of the species and is therefore capable of fulfilling specialised functions within any part of its natural environment.

Both the new cell and the baby, however, must ‘learn’ or be educated to fulfil such functions. This learning process is in both cases very similar and can be shown to be subject to a given set of constraints and hence to obey a given set of laws which must govern the learning or educational process, (if these anthropomorphic terms can be used) at all levels of organisation.

In this short paper, I can do no more than cite them in what must inevitably be a dogmatic manner:

  • Education is a dynamic process. The young strive to acquire the knowledge required to enable them to fulfil the functions required of them at each stage of their ‘upbringing’.
  • The educational process is subjected to the scrutiny and control of the larger system: the family in the early stages of the education of a child and the community itself in the later stages. [15] It is also a mutualistic process that satisfies the psychological and social needs of the individual child, who spontaneously and dynamically participates in the educational process, rather than having to be coerced in to doing so. [16]
  • The most general information is first acquired and, as education proceeds, so are the generalities of what will be the child’s (or other developing system’s) ‘world view’ or cognitive model of its relationship with its environment, slowly and systematically differentiated and adapted to current requirements. [17]
  • The more general the information acquired, i.e. the earlier it is learned, the less plastic it is and hence the less likely is it to be modified by later educational experience. [18]
  • Since the general information and hence that which was first acquired will colour all subsequent information into which it will be differentiated during the educational process, information acquired during the later phases can never by objective. Value-free science, for instance, is a myth, as all serious epistemologists (such as Popper, Polanyi, Feyerabend, Lakatos, Kuhn and Harold Brown) have clearly established. Education must, above all, consist in imbuing youth with the appropriate values which will underlie their world-view in the light of which their experiences and, hence too, their observations will be interpreted (see the growing literature on the psychology of perception and on the psychology of cognition).
  • The educational process, which, after all, is an essential part of the developmental process, is necessarily made up of a series of steps which must occur in the right order. This is referred to as ‘succession’ in ecology. It is equally well-established in all other developmental processes: epigenesis for instance. This must follow from the fact that the appropriated environment is required to ‘trigger off’ each step which will, in turn, play a role in creating the appropriate environment for triggering off succeeding steps.

People will object, among other things of course, to my identification of education with socialisation. This is difficult to accept today, for a number of reasons. One of them is that we live in a totally disintegrated society and one which we have been taught to regard as the norm. It is difficult to make people realise to what extent our society is, on the contrary, abnormal and indeed aberrant. Normal or tribal societies are self-regulating and self-stabilising, just as are such natural systems as cells, organisms and ecosystems. [19]

Of course, if education is socialisation, then we are faced today with an apparently insoluble problem. Indeed, how can one socialise young people into a non-society?

The obvious answer is to socialise them into the surrogate societies with which we provide them, by which I mean the business enterprises or institutions in which they are destined to work. It is for this reason, up to a point, that education is becoming increasingly technical education; i.e. a preparation for economic life – which prepares us ever less for a real social life, and hence contributes to the further disintegration of our real, as opposed to our surrogate, society.

People will object to my thesis on yet another count. Socialisation seems too prosaic, too rudimentary, too mean a process. Those who are particularly impressed by man’s cultural achievements, will see education as something more grandiose, more transcendental.

If people feel that way, it is that they have not fully appreciated the extraordinary sophistication of the socialisation process in man, of which the growing new discipline of Cultural Ecology gives at least some idea. [20]

As Reichel Dolmatoff [21] has shown, perhaps more convincingly than anyone else, a culture provides a traditional society with an effective model of its relationship with its environment – a model formulated in the language of mythology – a particularly human language which all can understand – in the light of which can be mediated a social behaviour pattern which at once assures the continuity and stability of the society’s structure, and that of its natural environment.

Such a cultural model can have great literary merit, as in the case of the epics of the more sophisticated traditional societies – those of the ancient Greeks and of the ancient Hindus, for instance.

What is more, the rich ritual life of a traditional society; its religion, its elaborate ceremonies, its artefacts and works of art, can be shown to be essential parts of the cultural strategy that enables it to achieve its continuity and stability.

If I am right, it must follow that if environmental education is to succeed in preventing people from destroying their natural environment, then it must consist of very much more than communicating to our youth apparently value-free scientific knowledge of the importance of preserving what remains of it.

Instead, it must involve their systematic socialisation into a real society, whose world-view leads its members to live in a mutualistic relationship with the hierarchy of social and ecological systems of which they are (or must be, if, in the long term they are to survive) but the differentiated parts, and to whose overall control they must, by the same token, be subjected.


1. Margaret Masterman, The nature of a Paradigm. In Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, 1970.
2. David J. Merrell, Ecological Genetics. London 1981.
3. J. H. Woodger, Biological Principles. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1929.
4. Paul Weiss, The Science of Life. Futura Publishing Company, New York 1973.
5. Arthur Koestler. See for instance Beyond Atomism and Holism in John Lewis ed. Beyond Chance and Necessity. Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, 1973. Also Janus: a Summing Up, Hutchinson, London 1978.
6. Yehoshua Bar Hillel, “Unity of Science”. In Proceedings of the Third ICUS Conference, Tokyo 1973. This article gives a concise history of the Unity of Science Movement.
7. Lucy Mair, Primitive Government. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, London.
8. C. H. Waddington, The Evolution of an Evolutionist. Edinburgh University Press, 1975.
9. This term is used by James Bonner. See “Hierarchical Control Programs” in Biological Development in Howard H. Pattee, Hierarchy Theory: The Challenge of Complex Systems. George Braziller, New York 1973.
10. This term is used by C. H. Waddington in all his writings on the subject, and seems to have been fairly generally adopted.
11. This feature of developing systems, Waddington refers to as “homeorhesos” (from the Greek homeo meaning same and the Greek rhesos meaning flow) to distinguish it from the more static ‘homeostasis’ as first used by Cannon in his classic The Wisdom of the Body.
12. See for instance Jerome Ashmore, “Technology and the Humanities”. In Main Currents in Modern thought Vol. 22, 1966.
13. Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life. Blond and Briggs, London 1981.
14. See for instance Pierre Clastres, La Société contre l’Etat. Les Editions de Minuit, Paris 1974.
15. See Frank N. Egerton III, (ed.) History of American Ecology. Arno Press, New York 1977. And Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy. Sierra Club, San Francisco 1977.
16. John Middleton, From Child to Adult. American Museum of Natural History. Source Books in Anthropology, Natural History Press, Garden City, New York.
17. For a discussion of cognitive models see Keith Oatley, Perceptions and Representations. London 1977. Also, D. R. Griffin (ed.) Animal Mind-Human mind. Dahlem Konferenzen, Springer Verlag, Berlin 1982.
18. Why this must be so is reasonably well explained by Rupert Riedl in Order in Living Organisms. John Wiley, London 1978.
19. See for instance Edward Goldsmith, The Stable Society. Wadebridge Press. Wadebridge, Cornwall 1977.
20. This is basically the theme of the journal Human Ecology, Plenum Press.
21. W. Reichel Dolmatoff, “Cosmology as Ecological Analysis: a view from the rain forest. Man Vol. 11 No. 3, September 1976.
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