The UK government is reported to be seriously considering making “nature studies” a compulsory subject for all pupils. It’s a move that was recommended in the recent government-commissioned Dasgupta review, a detailed analysis of the “economics of biodiversity”.
The review is long and technical, but in among the tables and statistics, there are some radical suggestions that go beyond a focus on economics alone, recommendations designed to transform our relationship with the natural world before it is too late. Among options for rethinking supply chains, measures of economic progress and financial regulation, right at the end is a brief focus on education:
“Every child in every country is owed the teaching of natural history, to be introduced to the awe and wonder of the natural world, to appreciate how it contributes to our lives.”
The review calls for environmental education programmes from primary school all the way through to university.
Rediscovering our connection to nature
Would it really make any difference? As an academic who teaches, writes and undertakes research on the social and psychological significance of contact with nature, especially in the context of our ongoing ecological crisis, I believe there’s good reason to think it could.
Take the idea of an “extinction of experience”, which refers to how each subsequent generation has less sensory contact with diverse natural environments. As meaningful connection disappears, our sense of what is normal is gradually redefined – the “shifting baseline syndrome”, to borrow a related concept. As standard experiences of nature become increasingly narrow and empty, the fear is that we also lose our ability to understand, care for and defend the natural world, and a rapid cycle of mutual decline is underway.
Experience-based environmental education could be an important tool for reversing this shift. Recent research confirms common sense in this regard – repeated, positive (which does not mean unchallenging) experiences of natural environments in early childhood underpin a deep and lifelong attachment to nature into adulthood.
To counter the extinction of experience, it makes sense to proactively design an education system that will foster an attachment to nature. There are positive precedents here already, not least the growth of Forest Schools, which originated in Scandinavia but are now a global movement advocating the social and educational value of spending part of the school day in nature. Continuing the study of ecology into adulthood also seems like a necessary step if we are to collectively address the shifting baseline syndrome, by actively facing up to what is being lost.
Nature studies for the Anthropocene
Nature studies should not shy away from the fact that natural environments are in retreat as a result of human activities. In that sense, natural history is also social history, and nature studies is social studies. Many areas of a secondary curriculum could recognise this fact without necessarily introducing compulsory natural history lessons, but while still incorporating experiences of being in nature.
Also, when we start to think about human history and the kinds of activities responsible for the biodiversity and climate crisis, things get a little more complicated. Empire, colonialism, the slave trade, industrialism, capitalism, communism and intensive agriculture are all central to how “we” have transformed natural landscapes across the planet in the age of the “Anthropocene”.
Along the way, important practices and worldviews that have sophisticated and deeply held understandings of nature have often been trampled upon and marginalised. These traditions continue in many indigenous communities, and inform collective resistance to environmentally destructive activities and a defence of the rights of nature.
“Nature studies” could learn a lot from these longer, deep-rooted and ongoing connections to nature, just as it could from people working with nature in different ways such as farmers, rangers, conservationists and activists. A key lesson we must learn is that nature is alive, and something we are a part of and depend upon – not an external and inert resource to plunder without consequence. Again, for me this seems to require a radical approach to education across the curriculum – science, history, literature, geography, economics, psychology, even religious studies – rather than something that can be contained within a compulsory subject.
Despite these reservations, I still think an experience-based nature studies education, woven into a progressive curriculum, is a fantastic idea. Meaningful human-nature interactions are a much stronger foundation for action than lecturing people about why they should care for nature.
It could be part of an essential toolkit for a sustainable future, and for creating a groundswell of people willing to care for and actively defend nature. If it really were compulsory, who knows how powerful the collective nurturing of a childhood sense of awe and wonder, and a deep, secure, attachment to nature might be, were it allowed to bloom and flourish?