Learning to save the planet

Learning to save the planet

Myshele Goldberg
The Scotsman

Everyone seems to be going green these days – politicians, celebrities, ordinary people. But what about people who want to go beyond small lifestyle changes and learn how to really make a difference?

For those dedicated to social justice and environmental sustainability, the Centre for Human Ecology (in partnership with the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow) offers a unique MSc course which explores the foundations of our current global crises and pathways to a better future.

Since I completed the year-long course in 2005, the topics we studied have become hot news: climate change, poverty, toxins in food, widespread stress and unhappiness… What seemed two years ago like a fringe course for activists has now landed in the middle of some of our most relevant cultural debates. At a time when “green” graduates are in demand, the CHE goes beyond surface facts and figures, to get at the root causes of global problems.

One of very few courses in the world combining ecological, social, and personal issues, the Human Ecology MSc is not a typical master’s course. Organised with distance-learning in mind, teaching takes place mainly during rigorous weekend workshops, with phone-based tutorials in between. There are no full-time teaching staff. Courses are taught by practitioners and a wide range of guest speakers. Students are encouraged to learn from each other, the wider community, and their own experience as much as possible. Lectures are supplemented by discussion, debate, group projects, individual reflection, and field trips. The course begins and ends with week-long intensives – one in an urban setting, one rural. Anything less than full participation is not possible, and a strong “learning community” develops in each cohort. Beyond the core Human Ecology modules, options have included Spiritual Activism, New Economics, Ecopsychology, Action Research, Food Culture & Agriculture, Ethical Enterprise, and Sustaining Ecosystems.

What exactly is Human Ecology? Throughout the year, this was a question we all grappled with. Human ecology means something slightly different to each person who studies it. Broadly, if ecology is the study of living communities, then human ecology is the study of human communities. It includes all the systems we are part of: natural cycles of land, air, and water, the relationships that connect us with plants and animals, the social, economic, and political structures that give shape to our lives, and the psychological terrain of our inner worlds. In many ways, human ecology is the study of everything.

The constant shifts in perspective were often frustrating and confusing. For one exercise, we had to identify the “inputs” for a cup of coffee: communities of coffee growers, their political situation, insects and animals living on the plantations, ships and oil to transport the coffee around the world, offices of import/export companies, factories where coffee is processed and packaged, the trees and raw materials for that packaging, shops that sell coffee, water-treatment plants, the hydrological cycle, government offices to collect taxes on coffee, the wars those taxes pay for… The more we pondered, the clearer it became that one cup of coffee is linked with everything else on the planet. Each of us is linked with everything else on the planet. It’s a humbling and horrifying realisation.

But from the horror and despair, the course led us through to hope. If each of us is part of the problem, then each of us can be part of the solution. And more importantly, if the problem has been created by so many millions of choices, it’s not going to be solved quickly or easily. The MSc gave us an important dose of reality. But each of us was encouraged to explore where our own contribution might be, engaging “head, heart, and hand.” By seeing the diverse directions taken by our classmates, we were able to find more confidence in our own choices. By understanding the interconnectedness of the world’s problems, we were able to see how our own small roles could have wide-reaching effects.

The experience of the MSc went beyond books and lectures, in many ways reweaving the fabric of our daily lives and choices. The best way to understand the course is to examine the paths of its graduates. Their collective work experience sometimes reads like a who’s-who of the sustainability scene: Greenpeace, the New Economics Foundation, the Scottish Executive, the Centre for Alternative Technology, the Gaia Foundation… But many have worked for lesser-known organisations, crucial in the shift toward sustainability.

In Scotland, one CHE graduate founded the Melting Pot, a social enterprise in the centre of Edinburgh to provide space and resources for activists and community organisations. Another has started Open Ground, bringing people into the hills for transformative experiences. Other graduates hold key positions in the Sustainable Scotland Network, the Community Recycling Network, and the offices of Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People.

On the Isle of Eigg, a pair of CHE graduates are creating a sustainability centre, housed in the mansion where the Laird once lived. The island is now community-owned, and they are restoring the Lodge to demonstrate a variety of eco-friendly renovation techniques.

In England, CHE graduates have been involved with a sustainable living centre in Manchester, a farmer’s market in East Oxford, improving the energy efficiency of village halls in Yorkshire, and holistic life coaching in London.

The transformative work stretches across the globe: ecological restoration and holistic wildlife management in Zimbabwe, a community garden for ethnic minorities in France, sustainability consulting in Australia, humanitarian work in Palestine and Rwanda…

Many CHE graduates also engage in teaching: Ecology and Linguistics in Gloucestershire, literacy courses for Korean students in Canada, Action Research and Ecopsychology throughout Scotland, Ecological Economics in the Czech Republic, forest schools in Midlothian and the Amazon basin, workshops throughout the world in permaculture, strategic campaigning, eco-renovation, leadership, and a myriad of other topics.

The range of issues that CHE graduates are engaged with is vast, and many bring their expertise back to the course as guest speakers, contributing to the cycle of knowledge and action. With nearly one hundred graduates spread across the globe, the Centre for Human Ecology is changing the world, one student at a time.

Source: Centre for Human Ecology: http://www.che.ac.uk/index.php/