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Education for Sustainability

Author: Chris Roth
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #147

I’m listening to the rain fall on the roof of Karma, the passive solar residence at Sandhill Farm where I’m staying this spring. In these first few weeks of March, I’ve helped with and learned about peach tree pruning, maple syrup production, vegetable growing in northeast Missouri, food fermentation, and how best to navigate snowy, then muddy rutted farm roads by foot and by bicycle. I’ve seen and heard new birds nearly every day, deciphered some of the branching patterns on still-leafless deciduous trees, and (at the electricity-free Possibility Alliance Sanctuary, where I stopped for a few days before arriving here) learned some of the nuances of beeswax candle-making, bathing in a basin of woodstove-heated water, and accompanying a singing bilingual two-and-a-half-year-old on guitar.

In both of these communities, I’ve met and gotten to know people for whom education is not something they did in school, then were finished with. Life in these rural, land-based communities is an ongoing learning experience—and it’s shared with others. It happens through direct experience and personal connection—a combination of conscious instruction, mentorship, osmosis, projects undertaken together, and the organic unfolding of daily life in these settings. It involves how we relate to one another and to ourselves—not simply physical living skills or knowledge about the world “out there.” It involves multiple generations of people, most of whom are not blood-related but who consciously create a family feeling as a community—who eat together, meet together, share work, help and support each other through personal challenges, and learn from one another. Some are long-term members, some (like me) exploring, some intending to stay just for the growing season as interns, some simply visiting. Without exception, from what I’ve witnessed thus far, they are inspired by what they are doing, valuing and valued for their roles in these communities, and involved in an active quest to help a more community- and earth-focused world emerge. They not only embody it themselves, but they share their lives with others who are also sincerely interested in and called to this path.

No one here is stuck in a rut, resigned to the “grind” of a formulaic existence, counting the days to retirement (or too overwhelmed even to count). The only serious ruts in which people seem to get stuck are in the roads, but then they pull each other out or flag down a helpful neighbor.

For most of the past quarter-century, I’ve been fortunate to be part of such settings—places where I can hear the rain fall on the roof (not drowned out by traffic), get my hands in the soil, and learn about others and myself on much more profound levels than those allowed by merely superficial interactions. I have almost no memory of much of what I studied in my academic schooling, but what I’ve learned through direct, experiential engagement with rural life, ecological living, ecology, and community doesn’t even need “recalling”—it’s part of who I am. True, I have learned, then at least temporarily forgotten, many plant species names—but what’s really important on this learning path doesn’t fade away with time, but just gets richer. I feel more able to deeply appreciate community, life on the land, the natural and human worlds, and learning itself than I ever have.

Lately, I am particularly happy to be reminded of the power of small-scale educational programs—the internships, apprenticeships, and mentorships carried out by countless intentional communities, small organic family farms, and other groups trying to live more sustainably and create a better world. Personal connection, individual attention, a valuing of the whole individual—these are priceless gifts when they accompany an educational experience, and they are natural outgrowths of a healthy community setting. They lead not only to better learning of sustainable living skills, but to ongoing, sustainable and sustaining, human relationships. They lead to generations of people who feel more connected, and therefore who are more likely to care and act to assure that future generations have a livable world to inhabit as well.

While intentional-community-based sustainability education programs come with their share of challenges (many detailed in this issue), ultimately every one of them has a tremendous amount to teach its participants—all of whom, whether nominally facilitators or students, are in reality both teachers and learners. The increasing integration of more traditional academia with intentional community (also described herein) offers great promise as well. The alternative to a fragmented world is one which becomes more whole, and it will require an integration of community and a holistic approach to education.

As Pete Seeger points out, the world cannot be saved by impersonally large groups following a single formula, or by homogeneous, one-size-fits-all projects, no matter how nobly conceived. “I’m convinced that if there is a human race here in 100 years, it’s not going to be big things that do it; it’s going to be millions upon millions of small things.”[Interview with Jeremy Smith, published November 9, 2007, www.chud.com/articles/articles/12479/1/EXCLUSIVE-INTERVIEW-PETE-SEEGER-PETE-SEEGER-THE-POWER-OF-SONG/Page1.html.] Small projects which deeply touch the lives of those who participate in them inspire further connections, more teaching and learning, continued evolution in our individual and collective understanding of what constitute sustainable ways of living and social organization—and more direct experience of the hopeful reality that one person at a time, one step at a time, from the ground up, the world does change.

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