Ecojustice And Social Justice Essay

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Educators interested in ecojustice analyze and fight to end the increasing destruction of the world’s diverse ecosystems, languages, and cultures by the globalizing and ethnocentric forces of Western consumer culture. In addition, they also study, support, and teach about the ways that various cultures around the world actively resist these forces by protecting and revitalizing their “commons,” that is, the shared languages, practices, traditions, and relationships (including relationships with the land) necessary to sustain their communities. By emphasizing the commons (and its enclosure or privatization), scholars using ecojustice perspectives recognize social justice as inseparable from and even imbedded in ecological well-being. Ecojustice education thus emphasizes educational reform at the public school, university, and community levels as necessary to stem the tide of both cultural and ecological destruction.

The following five priorities are central to ecojustice-based educational reforms: (1) helping to overcome the environmental and political sources of environmental racism; (2) reducing the consumer-dependent lifestyle and traditions of thinking that contribute to the current exploitation of the cultures of the southern hemisphere by the cultures of the northern hemisphere; (3) revitalizing the diversity of cultural and environmental commons as a way of reducing the environmentally destructive impact of the West’s industrial culture; (4) learning to live in a way that helps to ensure that the prospects of future generations are not being diminished; and (5) contributing to a wider understanding of the importance of what Vandana Shiva refers to as “earth democracy”—that is, the right of nonhuman participants that make up the earth’s interdependent ecosystems to reproduce themselves in ways that are free of technological manipulation and exploitation.

This entry looks at the ecojustice view of education from the perspective of an advocate.

The Commons And Educational Reform

Educational reforms that contribute to the revitalization of the commons, in effect, represent pedagogical practices that are achievable within different communities and bioregions. Rather than being built on abstract theories about emancipation or transformation, these practices are grounded in the diverse day-to-day relationships and needs of particular communities and built upon important knowledges and traditions passed down through many generations. Rather than arguing for universal application, this approach to educational reform begins by recognizing the specificity of local cultures— the attending languages, practices, beliefs, decision-making patterns, and so on—in relation to a particular geographical context. It also recognizes that all communities and cultures share the necessity to preserve the life systems that they depend upon to survive. Thus, while the particular ways they may go about creating these practices and relations may differ radically, all cultures create a “commons.”

The commons are not a theoretical abstraction, and thus they should not be understood as a project to be achieved in the future. They represent the aspects of everyday life and of the natural world that have not yet been privatized and monetized. Scholars in this field refer to “enclosure of the commons” when the shared aspects of day-to-day life that once contributed to the general well-being of communities are transformed into privately owned money-making resources. Many taken-for-granted aspects of life are practices that have been refined and handed down through many generations, including practices as seemingly mundane as the way to make a bed, set a table, shingle a roof, or stack wood; more threatened practices like gathering and preserving seeds or protecting life in a stream; and more formalized practices and principles such as those represented in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are two parts of the U.S. commons that are shared by all citizens and keeping American communities healthy.

Thus, the commons need to be understood as still existing in both rural and urban settings and in every culture and bioregion on earth. Some commons practices and relations are expressed in craft knowledge (how to farm without wearing out the soil, or how to select a tree and plane a log to become a piece of lumber), others in formal and informal rules of decision making (ward representation in community politics, or household division of labor), still others in more mundane “chores” (how to keep a house clean, a garden tidy, or animals fed and cared for).

The cultural and environmental commons thus represent the lived alternatives to money-dependent activities. They are potential sites of resistance to the spread of the consumer-dependent lifestyle that is viewed as a major cause of ecoinjustices. While not all commons practices are necessarily ecofriendly, learning about the commons in the students’ own community and bioregion, as well as the economic and technological forces that threaten what remains of the local commons, helps students to identify those areas that are healthy.

Such a focus should thus be a major aim of educational reform within public schools and universities. The emphasis on the local and the nonmonetized practices of daily life that have a smaller ecological impact would require a radical shift away from the centuries of focus on progress, competition, and growth.

Conceptual Foundations

Although the commons is part of everyday experience, its complexity, as well as the ways people depend on its many life-enhancing and community support systems, go largely unnoticed. The patterns of interdependency that make up the commons are largely taken for granted. For example, speakers of English write from left to right, and speak in patterns that are organized in terms of subject, verb, and object. The embodied experiences of the commons—for example, the multisensory experience of well-being one can get from working in the garden or sharing in a community-based activity—are also difficult to recognize for reasons that have direct implications for thinking about educational reforms.

From the ecojustice perspective, corporations and other modernizing institutions such as the media expose people to a constant stream of images that connect consumerism with success, happiness, and the achievement of social status. Images of the activities and relationships that do not promote the monetized and commodified culture are largely nonexistent. Advocates of ecojustice believe that public schools and universities, for the most part, contribute to the dependency upon a consumer-oriented culture by promoting a mix of what they see as classical liberal, Enlightenment, and industrially inspired myths. These ideas include: the individual becoming ever more autonomous, change as a constant and a sign of progress and success, literacy and other abstract systems of representation as a more reliable source of knowledge than the context-sensitive oral communication that sustains daily life in the community, and experimental approaches to knowledge and values as more empowering than intergenerational knowledge. Ecojustice advocates argue that the ethnocentrism that underlies the high-status knowledge found in universities leads to a greater dependency upon the industrial system to supply daily needs and discourages students from understanding their own cultural commons and bioregion. It also contributes to the near total silence on how non-Western cultures are attempting to sustain their commons in the face of globalization.

An example of how the combination of silences and linguistic-based misrepresentations can distort the ability to recognize the realities of daily life can be seen in how the Nobel Prize committee omitted Marie Curie’s name when they awarded the Nobel Prize to her husband and Henri Becquerel, even though the scientific discovery was largely based on her research.

From the ecojustice perspective, the interpretative framework that still dominates universities and public schools makes local traditions appear as sources of backwardness and impediments to change, progress, and greater individual freedom. To make the point more directly, advocates would say that being able to recognize the commons as sources of individual and community empowerment and self-sufficiency is undermined by the way in which traditions are misrepresented in the educational process. Many teachers, for example, understand traditions simply as holidays and family gatherings, rather than as the complex collection of shared practices of everyday life. Among some social justice or multicultural educators, traditions are presented only as the harmful practices associated with social inequities related to racism or sexism, and thus needing to be overturned in the name of social progress. Most students graduate from universities without learning to use critical analysis to identify the traditions and practices in day-to-day life that need to be conserved to sustain healthy communities, ecojustice advocates say.

These advocates argue that most students graduate from universities having learned one primary form of critical reflection, a technical form that prevails in the corporate and/or scientific world. Beginning from the question “What will work best?”—and often devoid of the complementary ethical question, “Is it good for the society and the ecosystem?”—this approach results in the development of new technologies and new forms of dependency. To understand the cultural and environmental commons, students need language that more accurately represents the complex nature of traditions—including the continuities within the culture that are examples of nonmonetized activities, relationships, and forms of knowledge that protect the land and the human communities living on it, ecojustice advocates say.

Issues Related To Language

Ecojustice educators point out other basic misconceptions and silences that limit people’s ability to understand the importance of the commons to a sustainable future. Again, what seems to underlie these is the ethnocentrism that is learned in everyday life and reinforced in the educational process, so that a number of other cultural myths are central to giving legitimacy to what is represented as high-status knowledge. One of the more important, ecojustice advocates would say, is the view of language as a conduit in a sender-receiver process of communication. This view of language supports other ideas, such as the objective nature of knowledge and the conception of the individual as an autonomous rational—even critical—thinker. As a result, individuals lack a conceptual basis for making explicit the taken-for-granted cultural practices that are viewed as undermining the commons.

In the ecojustice view, this misunderstanding of language, particularly the assumptions encoded in such words as progress and development, leads to ignoring or viewing as backward the ways in which other cultures are able to maintain a balance between their commons and market-oriented activities. Ignorance about how the metaphorical nature of language encodes a specific cultural way of knowing also leads to a state of prideful ignorance about the differences in other cultural ways of knowing, advocates assert.

For example, when the notion of progress is taken for granted, along with the idea that Western cultures are the most advanced, the conceptual and moral groundwork has been laid for cultural imperialism, which may lead to the subjugation and economic exploitation of the commons of other cultures.

Some Potential Reforms

Suggesting curricular and pedagogical reforms that focus on the different aspects of the cultural and environmental commons that have not been monetized is relatively easy. For example, having students give special attention during a typical day to the different activities and relationships that have been monetized is the first step in increasing their understanding of the differences between what is shared as part of the commons and how much of daily life has been enclosed by market forces. Similarly, having students identify the many relationships and activities within both the cultural and environmental commons that have not yet been entirely enclosed (privatized and monetized) is also a straightforward and easy task. Depending upon the cultural group and bioregion, students might identify different forms of intergenerational knowledge about food, healing, entertainment, craft knowledge, narratives, ceremonies, and traditions of mutual support within the family and community, as well as the characteristics of the natural environment that have not been degraded or turned into an exploitable resource. Even these simple, straightforward activities of mapping the aspects of daily life that do not require money, as well as the many more that do, will be affected by language.

Educational reforms that contribute to revitalizing the commons, which in turn help to address the issues that ecojustice advocates believe have worldwide importance for the future of humans and natural systems, require more. If the diversity of the world’s cultural and environmental commons is being affected by a wide array of forces—ideological, economic, technological, even religious—then the commons must become a more central part of the university curriculum. This is potentially the most difficult part of the educational reforms proposed by ecojustice advocates: getting university faculty to recognize that in carrying on the traditional approaches to their respective disciplines, they are in a state of denial about how serious the ecological crisis really is. Such a revised curriculum might include issues discussed in the next section.

Issues For The Ecojustice Curriculum

One critical theme for ecojustice advocates is the many ways in which industrial culture encloses the commons, from the genetic engineering of plants and animals to the privatization of the airways and cyberspace. This should lead to an examination of the connections between the many ways the commons is being enclosed, the ecological crisis, and the spread of poverty. The impact of enclosure on the different forms of intergenerational knowledge that represent the alternative to monetized dependencies should also be considered.

Another area of inquiry should focus on how the ideology of the World Trade Organization leads to undermining local economies and democratic decision making. Western science and technology are too often introduced without a consideration of the traditions of self-sufficiency within the cultural commons that contribute to living within the limits of the bioregion. The assumptions that underlie Western educational approaches to development also need to be questioned in terms of whether they contribute to the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity and to undermining the local traditions that kept market-related activities from overwhelming the life of the community. For example, does Western science undermine the narratives that are the basis of the moral values and sense of life purpose not centered on possessing more material goods?

A discussion of how ideologies support or undermine the commons can be centered on the nature of the commons: diverse in terms of culture and bioregion, dependent upon the renewal of intergenerational knowledge that reduces the dependency upon consumerism, with patterns of moral reciprocity rooted in the different cultures’ narratives. The question can then be raised as to whether Western ideologies of market liberalism, libertarianism, Marxism, and social justice liberalism support or undermine the commons. There should also be a discussion of the connections between economic globalization and the rise of fascism—including how fascism affects the local commons of different cultures.

A more accurate understanding is needed of how the metaphorical nature of language encodes and carries forward over many generations ways of thinking that are not sensitive to the importance of the cultural and environmental commons. This might show how language now reproduces the thought patterns and values of the industrial culture. Special attention should be given to understanding the nature of root metaphors that represent humans and the environment as interdependent and that take account of responsibilities for renewing the nonmonetized traditions that contribute to community self-sufficiency. The root metaphors that undermine the commons also need to be identified and discussed in terms of how they influence people to think and act in ways that contribute to their impoverishment and isolation. How the curriculum in both public schools and universities reinforces the root metaphors that contribute to undermining the commons also needs to be examined.

Ecojustice educators believe it is a myth to represent technology as a neutral tool; the expression of progress needs to be considered in terms of how it impacts the commons. Questions that should be considered include: What are the differences between the modern technologies of the West and indigenous technologies? How does the organization and use of technologies in the factory system influence human relationships, contribute to the loss of craft knowledge, and impact the local economy? Is automation inevitable, and what are the assumptions that represent it as inherently progressive? How do computers influence local language and knowledge systems that encode generations of knowledge of the characteristics of the bioregion? In what ways can computers be used to strengthen the commons, and what are the uses that contribute to undermining the commons? Do computers, by their very nature, contribute to the enclosure of different aspects of the cultural commons?

Educational reformers may base their proposals on a superficial understanding of current theories of learning that do not take account of the differences in the knowledge systems of different cultures, and the environmental crisis. The proposals need to be carefully examined. Government-initiated educational reforms, as well as reforms such as place-based education and reforms based on various constructivist theories of learning, should be assessed in terms of whether they promote the forms of learning that strengthen the mutual support systems within communities and prevent the further enclosure of the local cultural and environmental commons.

Historical Record

A number of thinkers have written on themes related to ecojustice and the revitalization of the commons, long before these terms were in common use to designate such issues. Among the earliest books to warn that unending progress might be disrupted by the industrial approach to the environment was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). This was followed by a report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth (1972). Since these early warnings, a steady stream of scientifically grounded books has appeared on subjects ranging from species extinction, depletion of the world’s fisheries, and chemical contamination to global warming.

Of special importance was the yearly report State of the World, published by the Worldwatch Institute. The warnings of these scientifically based books and reports on the deepening ecological crisis were taken seriously and led to more credibility for the social theorists who subsequently provided the conceptual basis for understanding the importance of the commons as sites for resistance to economic globalization and reducing the adverse human impact on the environment.

The understanding of the commons and dynamics of enclosure that underlie ecojustice recommendations for educational reforms was first derived from Karl Polanyi’s 1944 classic, The Great Transformation, a new edition of which was published in 2001, and The Ecologist’s publication Whose Common Future (1993). In the past decade or so, a number of other books have made the case that the strengthening of local economies and decision making represent the most viable alternatives to economic globalization—and have influenced thinking about what should be the major focus of educational reform. Among these are The Case Against the Global Economy and for a Turn Toward the Local (1996) by Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, and the report of the International Forum on Globalization, Alternatives to Economic Globalization (2002). Joel Spring’s How Educational Ideologies Are Shaping Global Society (2005) makes a more recent contribution to understanding how the neoliberal ideology that underlies the thinking of many educational reformers contributes to the form of global culture required by transnational corporations.

The writings of Third World activists have provided further insight into how Western colonization is contributing to the loss of identity and traditions of self-sufficiency in the Third World. These writings on how the commons are being exploited by Western corporations and governmental policies have helped ecojustice proponents to recognize both the nature and importance of the commons—understandings that had not been part of American graduate studies. In effect, their writings also helped American educators to recognize the ethnocentric foundations of their thinking. Among the most importance sources of influence about what ecojustice should encompass, and how it relates to resisting the enclosure of the commons, are the writings of Vandana Shiva, Helena Norberg Hodge, G. Bonfil Batalla, Gustavo Esteva, Grimaldo Rengifo, and the contributors to Wolfgang Sachs’s The Development Dictionary (1992). Vanishing Voices (2000) by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine and Linguistic Ecology (1996) by Peter Muhlhausler have been especially useful in helping Westerners to understand the connection between globalization and the loss of linguistic diversity—and how conserving linguistic diversity is essential to conserving biodiversity.

Several of these Third World activists have recently given personal accounts of how their attempts to introduce Paulo Freire’s approach to fostering literacy and consciousness raising led to their realization that Freire’s ideas were based on Western cultural assumptions and that his approach represented yet another example of colonization—again, in the name of progress and emancipation. These essays can be found in Rethinking Freire: Globalization and the Environmental Crisis (2005), edited by C. A. Bowers and Frederique Apffel-Marglin.

Other sources of influence that have led to the present understanding of or approaches to educational reform centered on ecojustice and revitalization of the commons include the Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, and the Alfred Schutz tradition of the sociology of knowledge. The Sociology of Knowledge (1967) by Berger and Luckmann was especially important in that it explained the role of language in the construction of a taken-for-granted, socially shared view of everyday reality. Edward Shils’s Tradition (1981) was essential to understanding the complexity of the everyday traditions that we rely upon—and that go largely unnoticed because of their taken-for-granted status. His book was especially important to our current effort to understand that the revitalization of the commons and the forces promoting its enclosure represent traditions that need to be made explicit so that those that are undermining the commons can be made explicit and democratically challenged. These books, along with books on the metaphorical nature of language—for example, Richard Harvey Brown’s A Poetic for Sociology (1977), Andrew Ortony’s Metaphor and Thought, (1979), and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (1980)—have provided a way of understanding how language carries forward earlier patterns of culturally specific ways of thinking, as well as how language encodes and intergenerationally reproduces the moral values of the culture. They also have provided a basis for recognizing the constructivist theories of learning that assumed that knowledge is constructed by individuals, and that individual autonomy should be the goal of radical approaches to educational reform, were fundamentally at odds with the reality of culturally constructed knowledge, which the individual may question, reinterpret, and/or misinterpret but for the most part take for granted.

The origins of thinking that led eventually to making ecojustice and the revitalization of the commons the central foci of educational reforms can be traced back to C. A. Bowers’s Cultural Literacy for Freedom (1974), which presented the argument that educators can only address the systemic causes of the ecological crisis as they help students to recognize the cultural assumptions that were contributing to overshooting the sustaining capacity of natural systems. More recent educational writings on the need to address the cultural roots of the ecologcical crisis include David Orr’s Ecological Literacy (1992), Gregory Smith’s Education and the Environment (1992), and Gregory

Cajete’s Look to the Mountain (1994). Smith’s writings focused on the importance of educational reforms that strengthen the sense of connection to place and community, while Orr’s work focused on the need for a more intelligent understanding of ecological design. Cajete’s contribution was in presenting the indigenous approaches to environmental education that are still practiced in communities across the land. One of the first books to introduce the idea that an understanding of the environmental commons should be part of the curriculum was Mitchell Thomashow’s Ecological Identity (1995). In Our Common Illiteracy (2002), Rolf Jucker combined an in-depth critique of how global capitalism is undermining the earth’s natural systems with a series of recommendations for the reforms that need to be introduced at all levels of our educational institutions. Rebecca Martusewicz’s Seeking Passage (2001) reflects her deep rootedness in the sociology of knowledge, as well as in the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, and Gregory Bateson. She has been especially focused on overturning the idea of the individual as a rational agent acting on a nonintelligent world, and on highlighting the importance of context and the generative role that difference plays in humannature relationships.

Others who have added to our understanding of how the revitalization of the commons contributes to the achievement of greater ecojustice in the world, as well as the implications for educational reforms, include David Gruenewald, who writes on the importance of connecting place-based educational reforms with the emancipatory agenda of critical pedagogy theorists, and C. A. Bowers, who has written a number of books that explain how constructivist theories of education contribute to undermining the world’s commons. Bowers’s work also explores how western universities are complicit in the globalization of the West’s economic and consumer-dependent culture, and suggests the nature of reforms that must be undertaken in teacher education programs if the revitalization of the commons is to be taken seriously. Important contributions to how an understanding of ecojustice issues can be incorporated into teacher education courses are currently being made by Jennifer Thom, Kathleen Pemberton, Kate Wayne, Elaine Riley-Taylor, Amanda Phillips, Karen Ferneding, Bob Farrell, Eugene Provenzo, and Jeff Edmundson. Edmundson has undertaken the most comprehensive approach to introducing an ecojustice/revitalization of the commons perspective into all of the courses being taken by students in a teacher education cohort at Portland State University.

Current Directions

Unlike place-based educational reforms, and the various approaches of constructivist learning advocates, the sociology of knowledge and the understanding of how the root metaphors of a culture reproduce earlier patterns of thinking have become central to ecojustice proposals for how teachers can become aware of how the ecological patterns of thinking that support the industrial culture are passed in the curriculum and in classroom conversation.

Educational reforms that contribute to the greater achievement of ecojustice through the revitalization of the commons can also be understood as contributing to the practice of an environmental ethic. These educational reforms are deeply moral in nature. They are also based on a tradition of both western and non-western ways of understanding moral reciprocity within the human and human-nature communities. In terms of the western tradition, Aldo Leopold’s “land Ethic” and the writings of Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and Gregory Bateson have been the most formative. Again, our own cultural ways of understanding the practice of environmental ethics has been influenced by what we learned from the writings about non-western practices of an environmental ethic. The writings of Keith Basso, G. Bonfil Batalla, Loyda Sanchez, Grimaldo Gengifo, Vandana Shiva, and Helena Norberg Hodge have been especially useful in enabling us to see more clearly our own cultural patterns—and possibilities.

The relationship between the theory and classroom/ community practices that contribute to a more ecologically sustainable future is explored in the online journal The Ecojustice Review: Educating for the Commons, which includes articles on the practice of an ecojustice pedagogy. The journal’s Web site also contains an ecojustice dictionary that clarifies how words take on different meanings, depending upon whether their definitions are based on the assumptions that underlie the West’s industrial, consumer-dependent culture or on the assumptions that take account of the nature and diversity of the world’s commons.


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