Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Narrative and Nature: Unsustainable Fictions in Environmental Education

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Narrative and Nature: Unsustainable Fictions in Environmental Education

Article excerpt

We live ... lives based on selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time--not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based on a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed. (Durrell 1963)

Environmental education owes its very existence to a particular interpretation of reality. My purpose here is to examine critically the "selected fictions" on which that view of reality is based--to examine the ways in which our perceptions of environmental problems and issues are "conditioned by our position in space and time". I will argue that some of these perceptions constitute unsustainable fictions and will consider some ways in which we might work towards living lives based on more sustainable constructions of human interrelationships with their environments. I will begin with an illustration of how an interpretation of reality can be changed by taking (to coin Durrell's metaphor) two paces east or west--by glimpsing something familiar from an unusual vantage point.

Grammar and environmental interpretation

Helen Watson (1989: 14) describes the responses of two Australian girls to a photograph selected from an illustrated book about Africa. Two beached canoes occupy the foreground of this photograph; a placid lake or inlet lies behind them, stretching towards distant mountains in the background. Both girls are asked to "describe what you see here". Ruth, a native speaker of English, predictably replies: "Canoes are lying on a beach". Binmila, a native speaker of the language of the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land, says: "Rangi-ngura nyeka lipalipa". A close English translation of Binmila's statement would be something like "Beach-on staying canoe".

In the English sentence, "Canoes" is the subject and "are lying on a beach" is the predicate. Subjects, for English speakers, are often objects which are characterised as being separate in space. In the Yolngu statement, the type of elements are indicated by rangi and lipalipa (beach-type and canoe-type elements respectively). The suffix -ngura is one of many suffixes in Yolngu which, when joined to another term, names the relation between elements in a scene. The subject of the sentence is the suffixed term rangi-ngura--a spatial relation ("beach-on") between elements of the world. Thus, "beach-on-ness" is the subject of the sentence. The term nyeka implies "sitting at or staying at a place" and, in a sense, it tells us something about the nature of the -ngura (the "on-ness" or "at-ness").

Clearly Yolngu speakers and English speakers refer to the world using different types of categories. Each language emphasises, or foregrounds, different aspects of the world. In English, we start with separate things in nature which often may have a separate focus as subjects of sentences. References to spatial location and relatedness to the world are confined to the predicate. In Yolngu, the subject of each sentence both names the thing and points to its relatedness. That is, the Yolngu people start with the view that the world is a related whole and, when constructing sentences, they focus on particular relationships. Because they use different grammatical conventions, English and Yolngu speakers construct very different stories of their experience and understanding of their environments. These stories are the "selected fictions" which form the substance of cultural transmission--the narratives, myths and rituals that are passed from one generation to the next and that we call, in English, "education".

Approaches to narrative inquiry in environmental education

The above example illustrates that environmental education is a rich subject for narrative inquiry, a form of scholarship which has a long history in education and other disciplines. A concise rationale for narrative inquiry in education is that:

humans are storytelling organisms who, individually and socially, lead storied lives. …

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