Sustainable involvement

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Sustainability in action in Britain? By Gillian Symons. WWF-UK Pounds 6.99. Children's Participation By Roger A Hart. Earthscan Pounds 18.95

The early days of environmental education in the United Kingdom were dominated by "nature study" and "rural studies" at a time when farmers were being lifted out of the prewar decades of depression by vast subsidies that paid them to destroy woodlands, wetlands, hedges and wildlife habitats.

There was a leap in sophistication 25 years ago, partly because of the growth of concern for the urban environment, which is that of most schools and pupils, and for an issue-based approach, and partly because of our growing awareness of a global environmental crisis of pollution. Matters multiplied with worries over the exhaustion of resources and the loss of species.

To these educational imperatives another aspiration was added: that of community participation in environmental decision-making.

When more powerful interests imposed a national curriculum, it remained possible for the advocates of environmental education to stake a claim for several slots in the timetable under various subject headings. Both of these books show how far we have come.

The first is published by the World Wide Fund for Nature, but is not about pandas. It examines several British initiatives related to Agenda 21, adopted by 179 governments at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Scepticism of governmental intentions is justified, but the commitment to local applications of this agreement provides a way for campaigners, including children, to put pressure on governments for a sustainable environment.

So Gillian Symons provides careful accounts of five British attempts to make life more sustainable - self-build housing in Sussex, a Local Exchange Trading System in Wiltshire, a Camphill (Steiner) community in Middlesbrough concerned with organic horticulture and sewage treatment, and the City Lands Project for locally-inspired urban renewal on the Wirral. There are suggestions for evaluation and group work around the well-presented case studies.

Roger Hart, respected in the United States because he presents the case for taking children seriously, provides a handsome book the scope of which is described by its subtitle: the theory and practice of involving young citizens in community development and environmental care.

His span is global but he does not ignore exemplary innovations in the UK, such as Learning through Landscapes, the Nottingham Youth Environmental Forum or the Newcastle Architecture Workshop. Both books contain endless suggestions and indicate how far we have shifted from the assumptions of the past.

Colin Ward's most recent book is Reflected in Water: A Crisis of Social Responsibility published by Cassell

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