Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Sense of Place in Australian Environmental Education Research: Distinctive, Missing or Displaced?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Sense of Place in Australian Environmental Education Research: Distinctive, Missing or Displaced?

Article excerpt

Introduction

In reflecting on the question of what might be unique or distinctive about Australian environment-related education research, the influence of the uniqueness of the Australian environment first came to mind. Perhaps this was because of the landscape I had missed during an extended residency overseas or because my extensive experience in another country's education system highlighted numerous commonalities rather than many distinctive features of Australian education. And my observations suggested that differences in educational research seem to be more related to factors associated with institutional (and department) cultures and identities rather than characteristics of nation states. So a potential source of any distinctive identity for environmental education research seemed at first to rest on connections Australian environmental educators might feel to place--to the biophysical and cultural landscape of this country. Here I refer not to the vernacular understanding or the pastoral view of landscape as separate and distanced but as linked to part of our identity as Australians.

Why might a distinctively Australian connection to the environment, or perspective on the human-environment relationship, be expected or even possible? The fact that there are many unique features of Australian landscapes, including its fauna and flora, obviously does not necessarily mean that its citizens in general or its environmental education researchers in particular have a unique perspective on or relationship with those landscapes or researching that relationship. Of course, indigenous Aboriginal Australians have a long history of a special relationship with country or the land, while an outdoor lifestyle, rather than livelihood, that frequently embraces recreational pursuits in natural areas for the non-indigenous population has long been viewed as a characteristic (mythical or otherwise?) of the country. Distinctively Australian social and cultural characteristics and values, many associated with its colonial history (e.g., egalitarianism) and others with it geography and demography (e.g., multicultural migration, urbanisation, highly concentrated coastal settlement) also have been put forward and subject to much debate.

On the other hand, as David Trigger (2008) argues, perhaps we over-emphasise the significance of "nativeness" in constructions of Australian identity. He cites Linn Miller's argument that while our experiences and conceptions of place are culturally constructed, "emplacement is not something people choose--it is, ontologically speaking, a condition of human being" (Trigger, 2008, p. 301). This suggests a sense of place is an existential opportunity available to all--regardless of whether we are of indigenous ancestry, native-born, migrant, refugee or even a temporary resident or visitor to Australia (Trigger, 2008) or any country. The implication is that every individual is emplaced in some way but the particular meaning and contribution of that emplacement to one's identity is a matter of individual biography, culture as well as personal agency.

Yet others argue that the emphasis on the social construction of sense of place neglects the significance of the attributes of landscape which are associated with characteristic experiences, with meanings in turn being constructed from these experiences (Stedman, 2003). This resonates with many Australian environmental educators, such as me, who were motivated to enter the field by a concern for the loss of places to which they feel a strong sense of attachment and belonging. Furthermore, many of us advocate connecting student learning to the local and the personal (Gruenewald, 2003; Stevenson, 1997). Do Australian environmental education scholars in general similarly connect their research and writing to the local and the personal? This issue of personal connections and identity with or sense of place in the Australian environment suggests one approach to exploring the question of the distinctiveness of Australian environmental education research. …

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