Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Consuming Passions: Educating the Empty Self

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Consuming Passions: Educating the Empty Self

Article excerpt

A proliferation of scientific and philosophical analyses point to the existence of an environmental crisis, or crises. Many of these analyses implicate patterns of excessive and indiscriminate consumption amongst the economically affluent as a major cause of environmental malaise. However, references to what might be termed 'malconsumption' are surprisingly limited in most environmental education materials and curricula and, if environmental educators are addressing the issue, there is little discernible impact in terms of changed consumption patterns. In this paper we wish to foreground the silence about malconsumption in environmental education. Our main intention is to suggest that the apparent inadequacy of environmental education strategies for dealing with malconsumption can be addressed by a recognition that current consumption patterns are linked to historical trends in the psychological configuration of the self. In our view, an exploration of the ways in which consumption has become a major form of meaning-making for the provision of satisfaction in affluent societies, generates important implications for environmental education. We propose thaf the pratice of permaculture can open up environmental education opportunities to attend to these implications.

Consumption and the environmental crisis

It is perhaps never superfluous to remind ourselves of the gravity of the complex interplay of socio-ecological risks and issues which have become known as the environmental crisis. Among the more global environmental dilemmas are climate change, ozone layer depletion, degradation of agricultural land and decline in biodiversity. These, in turn impact, often disproportionately, on the health, livelihoods and quality of life of people. So serious is the situation that 1500 leading scientists, including 102 Nobel Prize winners, warned (Union of Concerned Scientists 1992) that:

   Human beings and the natural world are on a collision
   course. Human activities inflict harsh and often
   irreversible damage on the environment and on critical
   resources. If not checked, many of our current
   practices put at serious risk the future that we wish
   for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms
   and may so alter the living world that it will
   be unable to sustain life in the manner that we
   know..... We the undersigned, senior members of the
   world's scientific community, hereby warn all
   humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our
   stewardship of the earth and all life on it is
   required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and
   our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably

The emergence of environmental problems can be explained in terms of how people's daily actions are shaped by certain ideals about life and living. These actions and ideals have co-developed with and within the current world economic system. This system is fuelled by the seemingly ever increasing consumption of commodities which requires increasing levels of extraction from and transformation of the natural world into goods. This consumption of commodities is not evenly spread around the globe and Ransom (1992) has argued that:

   .... the threat to the environment comes from what
   we consume in the North. It does not matter which
   measure you take.... the degradation of the Earth
   and the threat of global warming comes from the
   wealthy minority who live largely in the North.

While it is true that the wealthy minority to which Ransom refers live mainly in 'developed' or industrialised contexts, the distinction between the 'developed' countries of the 'North' and 'developing' countries of the 'South' is not only problematic but is increasingly blurred. The middle classes and their associated resource use are rapidly expanding in countries like India and China--and multinational industries more and more target 'developing' countries to stimulate the consumption of goods. …

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