Are we blindly betraying the environment we are trying to save?

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If I was to rewind 35 years and ponder my future in conservation and education there are three books that I wish had been written: George Monbiot and Feral, Mark Cocker and Our Place, Isabella Tree and Wilding, and without blowing my own trumpet, Children Learning Outside the Classroom Ch.13 by myself. For me these are wonderful books that bring masses of well referenced material together and anyone studying or thinking of studying conservation and education would glean a great insight. For those of us who have witnessed and experienced the ‘micro-management’ years, three 10 year blocks of Countryside Stewardship in my case, we can mildly despair at the prescriptions we were led to apply that have been well critiqued by all three authors. The conflict between SSSI designation, their preservation of status through ‘gardening’ and the experience of rapid landscape and biodiversity change has been profound and worrying to witness. ‘Bottom-up’ concern simply has not been listened to, red grouse and ring ousel have disappeared and heather moorland is changing and us human beings struggle to view the countryside through a lens other than preservation and status quo. Change is rapid now, and a fascinating period to study and question what we did in the past with a view to where the science is saying we will be in the future, there is much to be done and I would encourage anyone to examine the change. The annoying view is that despite relevant policy and substantial knowledge there is a lack of political will and “nature remains on a losing wicket” Tree 207. I like the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’; we know so much but somehow ‘things’ just don’t seem that serious to act upon just yet so we need even more natural rapid change. “We must all recognise that we have been engaged in a monumental, communal act of cognitive dissonance” Cocker 280.

A further worrying observation is that despite my efforts to engage children with the outdoors, and I have tried with over 122 000, the young teachers I see today are more cautious and less accustomed to the outdoors themselves than they were twenty years ago. This, I suggest, is because they have not had outdoor play experiences themselves as children and thus need more ‘hand-holding’ in their training. The observation comes from 10 years, delivering PGCE teacher training days for university students and it is very obvious when student teachers engage with rural primary school children out of the classroom, who is comfortable with the ‘space’ and ‘opportunity’ and who is not. To help the young teachers I encourage a style of direct sensory experience; seeing, touching and feeling, where safe, to stir the children’s emotions involving plants or animals, to turn a psychological key that creates a memorable emotionally charged experience. This is referred to as “real experience environmental education” Gurnett 177, using biophilia as the hook and demonstrating the environment as it is as opposed to a sanitised or anthropomorphised version.

Dave Gurnett
Dave Gurnett

Are we really going to hell in a hand cart; as an eternal optimist I have to hope not, but as Cocker 285 so wonderfully says “personally I have a problem with hope, not because I don’t feel it, but because it steadily becomes an objective in its own right, a distraction confusing and diluting the real issues”.

“It also draws an imaginary line between those who are assumed to be able to face the truth and those for whom it must be replaced with calming reassurance”. “Ultimately a tissue of half truths meshes with something far more powerful and potentially destructive – myth”.

Dave Gurnett 2020


Cocker. M, Our Place, Penguin, 2018

Gurnett. D, Children Learning Outside the Classroom, eds, ch 13, Sage, 2011

Monbiot. G, Feral, Penguin, 2013

Tree. I, Wilding, Picador, 2018

Dave Gurnett

Dave Gurnett has worked as an Education Outreach Officer for Exmoor National Park for 15 years and formerly as a Ranger for 16 years, having originally trained as a secondary school teacher. He manages his own smallholding inside the National Park, with experience of government agri-environment schemes spanning several decades. The views contained in this article are his own, and not representative of his employer.

First published in CJS Focus on Environmental Education & Outdoor Activities in association with the Countryside Education Trust on 11 May 2020. Read the full issue here

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