Green questions are stuck in a grey area

16th September 2005 at 01:00
You will know the legend of the blind men asked to describe an elephant.

Each grabbed hold of a piece - the trunk, the tail, an ear - and explained what he held. But the descriptions did not define the elephant, and I find myself in the same position with Linkingthinking - an extraordinary resource. It's a CD-Rom; it's a WWF Scotland publication; it's aimed at teachers and educators; it contains seven units, a glossary and a toolbox; it's about sustainability; it has implications and applications for all other curriculum areas; it's about thinking skills; it's flexible and well-tested; it's challenging and engaging. I could go on; but none of these snapshots gives you the whole picture.

Perhaps a personal illustration would help. Last year I developed a TES Teacher classroom poster about "food miles" - the distances our food travels to reach our tables. Seems pretty simple: local food good; distant food bad. But stop a minute. Many small farmers in other countries are dependent upon exports. To buy local would deprive them of their livelihood. And there are other, more complex reasons why a purely parochial approach is not ideal.

As Linkingthinking points out, problems are becoming more complex, answers more uncertain and solutions less sustainable. It's very easy to suffer from information overload; but it's a mistake to think that every problem has an easy answer.

Wind farms, for example, have to be a "good thing", don't they? Free energy, no burning of fossil fuels, reduced pollution, less global warming.

But there are those who find wind farms ugly and noisy and object to them "in their back yard". How to resolve the problem? Well, examples of the "Third Way" are the new designs for turbines: less like windmills and more like glorious, swooping sculptures. This is environmentally friendly in every respect.

Linking thinking points out that "It is estimated that if all people in the world were to consume as much as the average North American, at least three planets would be necessary to supply the resources. Yet we hear a lot about the need to bring the poor up to the level of wealth of the rich. This is the ideal of economic development and progress." That explains why China is suddenly putting huge demands on the world's resources of oil and steel.

But are such demands - and is such development - sustainable? If they gain, do we have to lose?

Most environmental questions present this sort of dilemma. Try resolving these familiar quandaries, for example:

* the Government seeks to cut car use, but increases road building

* the Government wants to reduce the debt burden of other countries but ties them into aid packages that extend their dependence

* a hospital tries to make people well but feeds them with nutritionally poor food during their stay

* a group of tourists finds an unspoilt holiday destination, but spoil it through their presence and behaviour

Stephen Sterling and his fellow authors state that: "Linkingthinking is the term we use to describe thinking that looks at the nature of and consequences of relationships. There is a mismatch between the way the world is, and the way we tend to think about it." I have the feeling that, like a first encounter with Bloom's Taxonomy or ideas about teaching and learning styles - Linkingthinking is the kind of resource that is life-changing. If there are rather a lot of examples from Scotland, surely that is forgivable. And it is hard not to warm to an author like John Salter who describes himself as a one-time "salmon fisherman and dustman, now a plant pathologist". He sounds unique - like Linkingthinking.

CD-Rom in PDFE form for reading with Adobe Acrobat (or similar), free. As a paper resource for pound;30.00. Both from WWF Scotland, 8 The Square, Aberfeldy, Perthshire PH15 2DD, Tel: 01887 820449, Fax: 01887 829453, e-mail,

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