Ecology and cultural learning


Infographic produced by A New Direction to accompany the research


A New Direction has begun a new piece of research which applies ecological concepts to understand creative and cultural ecosystems, and how they can be nurtured for the future benefit of children and young people. They have been doing research into equality of access to cultural opportunities in a changing and varied city, and realised that they needed to learn more about the networks and complex interactions that lead to cultural engagement. They wanted to go beyond a straightforward or geographical mapping of assets, to more deeply consider the role that culture plays in the lived experience of children and young people. Some of the concepts they are looking at include interconnection, webs and networks, regeneration, symbiosis, and fragility and strength.

To kick off the exploration, they invited John Holden to write a paper (which you can download from the link above, as well as three responses to it) in which he argues that young people are equal partners in the making of contemporary culture and should not be seen as passive recipients of a cultural education. They don’t do this in a vacuum though, as they need contact with Guardians, Connectors and Platforms. He proposes an ideal outcome of Cultural Wellbeing for CYP, which incorporates cultural understanding, critical agency, and being creators for themselves.

Very often when studies explore organisations or social systems in ecological terms, they bracket out actual lived ecology. This is like creating a circuit board or a diagram that uses some principles of ecology – usually to do with stocks and flows of resources – without considering geophysical realities. Holden’s paper is typical in this respect. That said, A New Direction is to be commended for commissioning it and moreover for allowing responses to feed from it, for new insights to emerge. In addition, Holden’s paper does rightly call for more mapping of children and young people’s actual lived experience.

Ecological thinking is big picture thinking, so if we’re going to use it properly we have to survey the big scene, local and global, and the present as part of a continuum. To embrace ecology we must first consider the catastrophic ecological collapse on global scale, that is already in progress, currently bringing us earthquakes (literally and metaphorically) but poised to bring subsequent tsunamis of impacts onto everything we hold dear and banal. These impacts will also fall hard on our expectations that children will grow up to work, travel, eat well and have their own children. Our instinct is to ‘bracket out’ climate change and other big impacts of ecocide because the possibilities are so unpredictable and unthinkable that we may as well carry on regardless. The ‘resting position’ of this anxious state is to use culture to enjoy ourselves while we can and, for those times we can cope with the challenge, use it to mourn and recover from the losses we face.

Humans are nature. Children are nature. Culture is nature. The big story of cultural learning is already and always ecological. But the story today is one of a wild self-regulating ecosphere gone wrong by humans behaving as a plague species, increasingly dependent on their monstrous creation of an econo-society that is based on extraction and pollution. This econo-society is one where children are extracted from wild nature as early as possible, made ‘school-ready’ in order to be made ‘work-ready’. It is one where everything children absorb causes their dysbiosis, and it is one in which hardly anyone knows what dysbiosis means for the mind and body, not even health workers. It is one where agricultural and manual work is seen as beneath ‘our own’ children while we seek to expel or make invisible those who do it for us.

The populist response to the global crisis is to build walls – not useful walls to keep out rising seas and storms but brutal ones to keep out climate migrants – and to extract ourselves from international institutions that co-operate for peace and environmental protection. This is the popular culture in which our children are being raised, and many of our children are suffering from the xenophobia it breeds.

To focus on the arts and culture in the UK, there are thoughtful movements to protect heritage from rising conflict and to consider the role of artists in a time of climate change. But there is no defined sector of eco-socially engaged arts and no mainstream support for it. The environment is not seen as an issue in ACE policies except in terms of reducing carbon footprint in operational terms. It is not seen as a cultural issue. As Amitav Ghosh writes in his new book about culture and climate change, focusing on India: “If we believe that the arts are meant to look ahead, open doors, then how is this huge issue of our time [climate change], absent from the arts? It’s like death, no one wants to talk about it.”

Holden draws on some profound ideas and raises interesting questions:

“These include emergence (how is the child’s cultural life formed and shaped; where does it begin?); growth (what does a child’s cultural growth mean? How are growth and development nurtured?); evolution (is there such a thing as cultural evolution, how do young people contribute to it?); and resilience (how is individual cultural confidence promoted, and how does the system of cultural learning develop its own resilience?).”


Extract from AND’s infographic, missing Synergy

My challenge is that these ideas are scattered like seeds in a ‘guerrilla gardening’ approach rather than a more intentional approach, where there would be a sound understanding of how these ecological principles interact with each other. A next stage to this research could be to sketch out how a local cultural ecosystem can emerge using more connected and defined principles.

To use the terms as they are used in ecology:

Evolution is defined in terms of increasingly elegantly ordered complexity.

Emergence is like ultra-evolution, a result of exceptionally or intelligently ordered complexity (originally introduced as a hypothesis to explain evolution of intelligence and to go beyond the ‘survival of fittest’). Emergence should really be talked about in relation to Synergy, which is the property of relationship where the whole has new properties that the separate parts didn’t have. Emergence arises from more synergy, more agency, more diversity, and more ordered relationships. So, how might any cultural ecosystem allow for these four forces that create emergence, for the benefit of the next generation?

Resilience is a function of agency – when organisms or people are able to act in response to chaos or critical change, in ways that might normally seem risky or deviant, to ensure the best possible conditions for survival. So, how might we encourage risky and ‘positively deviant’ behaviours to increase resilience?

Growth is a fairly generic term, a tool word, usually used quantitatively in ecology (e.g. numbers of populations). In ecological mindsets, growth must have limits, whereas emergence  is more qualitative and open-ended. Perhaps instead of asking about children’s ‘cultural growth’ we need to talk about their ‘cultural wellbeing’ and how it can be measured in terms that refer to what powers emergence, that is, synergy, agency, diversity and more ordered relationships.

In addition, ecology is a good science discipline but to apply it in practice, you need to use something like a set of permaculture principles. So, to steward a cultural learning ecosystem you might be looking to ‘plant’ artforms or spaces in synergistic combinations, to try to eliminate anything too poisonous or invasive, set up ‘closed loop’ systems so that waste resources can be re-used, and observe changes with only minimal intervention.

Here is another example of where more ecological precision would be useful: “A further advantage of an ecological approach is that it treats all forms of life within an ecosystem as equally important. An elephant is bigger than a flea, but in ecological terms, both are necessary to the functioning of their ecosystem.” This is partially true, but it is too simplistic to say that all forms of life are equally important without referring to quantities and how they combine in context. What matters in a system is how organisms interact with abiotic and biotic elements, the quantities of species interacting in a place, and how these can be thrown out of balance in places subject to a shifting climate. Elephants are in fact keystone species, acting as fertilisers, architects and engineers. If you eliminated elephants you would have to find some other way of fertilising land, providing habitat for many insects (in dung), dispersing seeds and opening up water sources. In contrast, fleas provide minimal ecosystem services, spread diseases and, in the case of water fleas present a massive invasive problem. A better analogy might be that every area needs a ‘cultural elephant’, a provider of cultural ecosystem services so that the other problematic species or poisons that might be insidious in a culture (intolerance, limits to creativity, violence, objectification, censorship etc) are not able to spread. Maybe we should start to require ‘cultural elephants’ to provide ecosystem services to others, and to celebrate when they do, and not just think of cultural organisations as sucking up local resources like water up their trunks.

Holden says that “Ecological approaches do not treat children as passive units that exist within an environment that acts upon them. Instead young people are seen as actors who shape their own cultural environment at the same time as they are being shaped by it.” Indeed, a thriving culture is fed by a diversity of players, and children are potentially our most imaginative players. However, their agency is currently being suppressed by wider educational and social pressures, in particular by inequality. I would argue that we need to go beyond seeing young people as already active agents creating their own cultural world, to enabling them to shape our wider world. So we should open up the whole cultural field to allow it to be more richly fed by young people’s contributions. We should open up cultural learning to include much more physical play (creative sport? resilience games?), much more design and interaction with nature and materials, and more critical thinking about the future.

In one of the responses to Holden’s paper, Tom Cunningham argues that as schools decline in their capacity to provide creative education and cultural partnerships, we must mainly focus on motivating young people to demand and create an appetite for culture. (I wouldn’t want to give up on pushing schools and lobbying Government to restore cultural education but support this call as an additional approach.)

It could be helpful to look more closely at Holden’s model of Guardians, Connectors and Platforms, to see where the opportunities are to open up this two-way flow and to increase young people’s agency. If we look at this more ecologically:

  • Guardians could be seen the keystone species that provide ecosystem services of fertilising and conservation so they would be the organisations, collections and expert practitioners that steward culture and do the designing, collecting, commissioning and training on a large scale;
  • Connectors are like the mychorrizae that sit beneath trees and distribute nutrients, pest resistance and other information, according to need, so they would be individual advocates and sharers, brokers and funders and also services such as libraries;
  • Platforms are…well they should really be all the places we inhabit (real and virtual), well nourished, where schools/libraries/sport places/youth centres are fully integrated with culture, and where cultural venues are open to children and young people as equal and expressive citizens.

Laurence Becko, in his response to Holden, makes some helpful points (and practical suggestions for youth consultation), suggesting that we need to understand what ecological ideas resonate with young people, what really motivates them and how their ‘cultural wellbeing’ needs compete with other sources of nourishment or stresses. He writes: “As a sector, we will continue to need to make the artistic, economic and social arguments for creative learning. Whether the ecological argument takes hold remains to be seen.” I wonder if we are misinterpreting the ecological argument, and therefore misrepresenting it, as simply akin to rather than embracing of the aesthetic, economic and social arguments. Holden’s approach is to use ecological principles to make what is essentially a social argument, with some acknowledgement of open-ended artistic outcomes.

If we want the ecological argument to be accepted, we need to make a fully integrated argument for promoting human ingenuity and children’s thrivability into the future. This article by Andrew Curry talks about how to design a regenerative city, using London as an example, and argues that rather than promoting the model of a ‘smart city’ we should promote the ‘happy city’. Clearly, cultural wellbeing plays a major role in a happy city. An ecological approach would first ask, how do we create thrivable places and apply ecological principles to ensure that they are healthy, happy, future-proofed and beautiful, and as part of this introduce stocks of culture and flows of creativity.

Fundamentally we have to consider what culture and creativity are, and an ecological approach is helpful here. For too long we’ve believed the individualistic model in Maslow’s hierarchy with physiological needs at the base and self-actualisation at the top, and associated culture and creativity with the very top (as ‘nice to have’). If we look at indigenous societies and early humans, imaginative creativity and transmitted culture are absolutely integral to their basic survival and optimising their interactions with a thriving natural environment. Yuval Noah Harari reminds us that humans are not distinguished from other animals by having language, or using tools, but by having an advanced pre-frontal cortex that allows us to imagine what is not present, to invent what has not existed before and to project into the future. Culture is essentially the stewarding and nurturing of imaginative creativity.

Pat Moores of The Mighty Creatives responds to Holden’s paper by reminding us of the UN Convention on the rights of the Child, published in 1989, that recognises children’s freedom of expression and their rights to rest, leisure, play, culture and arts. Culture is fundamental to what it means to be human. Currently we are depriving children of both nature and culture, and ecological stresses are severely threatening children’s rights to a thriving future life.

3 responses to “Ecology and cultural learning

  1. Great writing Bridget. Shared widely and recommended reading. Good reasons why pursuing alternative paths of education such as Montessori schools that offer child led education, and/or investing also in ventures that offers both nature and engagement w technologies like

  2. A good article. Thank you. However I don’t agree with Harari’s assertion about animal consciousness. It is very complex business and personally I don’t feel comfortable with the strength of that assertion.

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