Environmental education as a weapon: The importance of contextual knowledge in a rural community
University of Newcastle
This field study investigated the environmental ideologies present when a combined Total Catchment Management - Regional Environmental Plan (TCM-REP) instrument was applied to a rural catchment in NSW, Australia. A qualitative ethnographic evaluation methodology was used, utilising in-depth interviews, focus groups and observation. The study identified a well-defined Bureaucrat ideology effectively controlling the TCM-REP process and prompting a defensive alliance of Contextual ideologies. In the context of non formal environmental education in the rural sector, these findings emphasise the force of contextual knowledge and the need to use educational methods which acknowledge this.
Toxic algae: a 1000 km disaster in our rivers
by ASA WAHLQUIST
An immense algal bloom, believed to be the biggest recorded
in Australia, if not the world, has exploded along the Darling/Barwon River
|national disaster and the army might
have to be called in to help ship water to isolated areas.
The Department of Water Resources issued a warning to residents along the river yesterday to avoid contact, drinking or cooking with the water.
Scientists were flown over the length of the bloom at the weekend. Dr. Lee Bowling was shocked at the colour of the river which is normally turbid and a milky tea colour. "Most of the way it looked like an emerald green river running through dry landscape. I've never seen anything like it," he said.
|The colour was produced by giant blooms of the blue
green algae Anabaena.
The algae can produce a toxin that kills stock and is believed to attack the human nervous system, causing respiratory distress and death by suffocation, skin problems and gastroenteritis. It can also affect the liver.
(Sydney Morning Herald, 22.11.91)
The dramatic language of conservative newspapers (1) reflects the startling discovery that Australia's largest river system, draining one seventh of the continent, is in crisis. A 1000 km emerald green stretch of river is an evocative report card about the way Australians have treated their waterways since the European migration some two centuries before:
The present condition of the river speaks of generations of foolish neglect and overuse. The consequences have been ecological disaster and economic degeneration. We are determined to restore the Murray Darling to its former stature. (Prime Minister Keating's 1992 Environmental statement, quoted in Alexander & Eyre 1993, 25)
Before 1991, the degradation of rural areas had been assigned a relatively marginal position in the Australian environmental agenda, even though more than fifty per cent needed rehabilitation (Martin et al, 1992, 184). "Historical evidence suggests that much of the land should never have been subject to conventional agriculture" (Messer 1987, 234; Vanclay 1992, 94).
This recent awakening to the scale of rural environmental problems has not extended to an understanding of their context, which is one of competing ideologies and stewardship authority (Figure 1). The major division originally occurred when pioneer farmers, confronted with consequences of catastrophic floods and droughts, ceded authority to governments and their attendant extension agencies (Mahony 1994a, 99; Powell 1978, 174). The original farmer subculture has been described in terms of:
In contrast, the bureaucrat subculture is characterised by:
The inherent clash of these two ideologies has prevented farmers from taking advantage of the scientific and technological environmental remedies offered to them:
For these would come at the cost of putting aside other priorities for capital; their rejecting some of their own ideas and knowledge about their local environment; and their accepting the models and knowledge of the extension agencies (Vanclay 1992, 113).
Figure 1: The ideological and institutional context for the response to rural environment problems in Australia
More recently, a third distinct ideology has appeared, derived from the growth of an issue-focused Australian environmental subculture, which matured rapidly in its political skills (Mahony 1994a, 108-110). Environmentalism in fact includes a range of environmental world views (Mahony 1994a, 30-37; Fien 1993, 23-29), but in a rural context can be distinguished from farmer and bureaucrat sub cultures by:
From this perspective, rural environmental problems are primarily ideological, rather than technical. These ideologies acquired institutional form when a collaborative approach to rural environmental problems emerged as the dominant public discourse in Australia during the 1980s. Total Catchment Management, with the catchcry of 'Community and Government Working Together' was a government initiative, drawing upon watershed management experience in USA, Canada and New Zealand (Martin et al 1992). The Landcare Movement resulted from rural people forming groups to work on local land degradation problems. It was remarkable both for its spectacular growth and its unlikely alliance between the National Farmers' Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation (Fray 1991; Frank & Chamala 1992; Martin et al 1992).
My own research into the nature and force of rural environmental ideologies began with a two year field study of a river valley community in Australia (Mahony 1994a; 1995). The Wollombi Valley study applied interpretivist historical and ethnographic methodologies, utilising 35 in-depth interviews, participant observation of two community organisations, and five documentary studies of community meetings and newspapers.
This research presented a picture of an adult rural population with special intuitive ways of knowing so compelling as to constitute entrenched 'positions' regarding their environment. Observation of community meetings saw these Men of the Land, Earth People and Other Agenda Folk sallying forth from these positions with well-practised scripts which reiterated the folk wisdom and self-evident truths derived from personal and cultural experience. These adults arrived at their present positions via life experiences, which in a communal form operated as well defined subcultural folkways. For the Men of the Land this was through a family apprenticeship in farming or sawmilling; for Earth People it was through participating in a global environmental awakening; for Other Agenda Folk it was by sharing an ideology which rejected the pressures of urban living for a cleaner, healthier rural lifestyle.
I noted three particular implications for environmental education from the Wollombi study:
In order to test these findings in another context, I undertook a two year study of a river valley where a Total Catchment Management study was being used to address a water quality problem (The Williams River). This particular focus brought into play an approach which I have labelled the bureaucrat ideology, which was not evident in the Wollombi study. The remainder of this paper will describe the Williams River research and discuss the extent to which the findings support those of the Wollombi study.
The Williams Valley contains a catchment area of approximately 1310 square kilometres and supports a rural population of about 6000, with nearly half living in the towns of Dungog (c2200) and Clarencetown (c650).
The Williams River supplies most of the water required for domestic, commercial and industrial use in the Lower Hunter. In 1989-90, 90.3% of the water supplied to the Hunter Water Board's 410,450 customers came from two sources: the Chichester Dam in the upper catchment (capacity 20,300 megalitres) and the Grahamstown Water Supply (capacity 131,800 megalitres). The latter was formed by constructing an embankment across the outlet of a natural depression in the lower catchment and pumping water into it from above a weir built across the Williams River near Seaham (Hunter Water Board 1991).
But by the late 1980s, serious concerns were being expressed about the quality of this water. There were outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae in the Williams River during 1989 and 1991 and growth were also detected in the Grahamstown Water Supply in early 1992. The Hunter Catchment Management Trust undertook a coordinating role in response to this and other river problems, commencing in 1989. In that year it requested the 80 rural residents with properties fronting the Williams between Seaham Weir and Clarencetown, i.e. the 'pondage' section, to express their concerns about the river. The Trust commenced a Williams River Management Study in November 1989 using representatives from local government and government agencies.
In July 1990 the Management Study Group was upgraded to a Williams River Total Catchment Management (TCM) committee, charged with producing a management plan for the Williams River. The 17-member committee was to be made up of 12 government representatives and five from the community. Five task groups were established to report on Hydrology, Catchment Erosion, Landuse, Ecosystems and Water Quality. They included representatives from 14 government organisations and five community representatives. In October 1993 the Minister for Planning announced the preparation of a Regional Environmental Plan (REP) to supersede the TCM strategy.
The ethnographic evaluation method used for this study is consistent with an interpretivist paradigm (Guba 1990; Robottom & Hart 1993). The primary focus of ethnography is understanding and description, and interpretations must be faithful to their context. But when utilised in environmental education, the requirements of the wider audience must be met, and the research is expected to make a contribution to the discipline's theory and practice. Ethnographic evaluation is a non-systematic variation of the basic ethnography which allows hypotheses to emerge freely from the data (Fetterman 1989; Smith 1988). I collected ethnographic data from three sources:
I approached the evaluation phase as follows:
The conceptual frameworks used by the TCM-REP process suggest a value-neutral, participatory response to rural environmental problems ('Community and Government Working Together'). But this interpretive study of Williams Valley participants reveals entrenched political and ideological divisions, and interactions characterised by contestation and manipulation, which belie the participatory slogan. The divisions take the form of 'organisational alliances', where particular agencies and community bodies are drawn to a common negotiating position for ideological and political reasons. The interactions between these alliances tends to be scripted rather than free flowing, with the scripts emanating from ideological standoffs. I call these 'competitive scripts'. I will deal with each of these in turn.
The people drawn in to the TCM-REP discussions held different perceptions about the health of the Williams River. Depending on one's perspective, it is a "pristine river" and "one of the greatest along the coast", or "beyond a shadow of doubt there is significant ill-health" in the river. If it does have a problem, it is a water quality problem, or a power boat problem, or a problem caused by the construction of Seaham Weir. These varying understandings belong to different organisations, and TCM-REP is the chosen instrument to enforce the arguments of the more politically astute. 'Management', in this light, is a device to obtain compliance with a particular world view, hopefully by persuasion, but ultimately by compulsion if necessary.
From this perspective, the participants in my Williams River study fall into three distinct groups: those actively promoting changed land and river use practices ('the drivers'); those affected by these changes ('the driven'); and those not directly affected, but whose interests may need safeguarding ('the interested observers') (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Organisational alliances
1. The Drivers
Essentially, these organisations and individuals own and manipulate the catchment management process. This is a de facto ownership, occurring because an agency owns a particular function which gives it ex officio membership. These core agencies are:
Hunter Water Corporation, a State owned corporation which provides water, sewerage and drainage to the urban populations of the lower Hunter Valley. It is commonly acknowledged as the initiator of the
Consultants are given delegated authority to carry out base-line studies and prepare draft strategies, always in 'consultation' with the community, but mediated by their own ideologies. Individual representatives of some agencies operate as an informal 'team' to set up projects, capture fundings, prepare reports and organise field days.
On the periphery of the Drivers is Williams River Care Association, a Landcare group with a focused, largely professional membership, skilled in political interaction. Their aim is to have their agenda adopted by the care agencies.
2. The Driven
Six organisations are involved, and these have been bracketed in pairs. Two are clearly targeted by the Drivers, but each has a patron agency, and two others find themselves unavoidably affected.
3. Interested Observers
Other agencies and community groups, not vitally involved or affected, maintain a watching brief. These include four State government departments, Port Stephens Council (with less than 10% of its area within the catchment), Clarencetown Landcare and Hunter Native Fish. The general view is that while the TCM-REP process is potentially useful in "bringing expert managers together" and opening up communications, there is skepticism about the value of the outcomes. "People do have hidden agendas" and some agencies "work in mysterious ways".
The viewpoints of all three groups can be discerned in the interview data and is reinforced by observation of the interactions at field days and meetings. The discourse pattern is characterised by the adoption of 'us and them' stances and the repetition of scripts associated with power maintenance versus the authority of contextual knowledge (Figure 3).
Two scripts are common with the power maintenance discourse. The first argues that the REP was necessary in order to give "legislative teeth" to the TCM strategy. The second refers frequently to "the big stick" of legal enforcement which can be invoked if persuasion, 'education' and peer pressure do not achieve the desired results. A third script of "turf protection" alludes to an inter-agency power struggle.
The authority of contextual knowledge is also associated with two scripts. The first keeps making the point that theoretical people do not understand the land ("When we start talking about properties it doesn't register with them") or the river ("Those sort of considerations are only just beginning to dawn on people who control the rivers"). The second is that those in power have to be made to listen. Change has only started to occur since farmers "started jumping up and down, making a bit of noise", and "You've got 20 agencies sitting there and four landholders trying to keep them honest".
The different scripts illustrated below constitute a competitive discourse which has its origins in radically different ways of knowing. The power maintenance discourse has a close association with the bureaucrat ideology described at the beginning of this paper. In the Williams Valley study, it has the following characteristics:
Figure 3: Discourses, scripts and associated ideologies in the Williams Valley
Opposed to this is an ideology associated with the authority of contextual knowledge. Its characteristics are:
The 'farmer' ideology described at the beginning of this paper is obviously represented in this contextual knowledge world view, but the two are not synonymous. Adherents also come from agencies, local government, ecotourism and community groups, voicing a combined ideological response to the bureaucrat challenge. Most see the TCM-REP process as a powerful and intrusive instrument putting previously unchallenged ideologies under pressure, and forcing defensive alliances.
In this paper I have argued that rural environmental problems in Australia are as much ideological as they are technical or economic, and include political manoeuvring to determine which ideology should control the strength and nature of the community response. Institutionally, the major competing ideologies have found expression in the development of Catchment Management strategies and the Landcare movement. My previous inquiry into the nature and force of environmental ideologies in the Wollombi Valley identified powerful groups whose world views were deeply entrenched, linked to an experiential way of knowing, and resistant to a positivist educational methodology which values technology-transfer approaches.
The Williams River study further explored these rural environmental ideologies in the context of a TCM-REP response to a perceived water quality problem. The findings reveal the use of participatory slogans masking deep political and ideological division, and the officially collaborative TCM-REP process in fact sponsoring polarised organisational alliances, which interact via competitive discourses originating in different ways of environmental knowing. I will now discuss the relevance of these findings, firstly to my understanding of environmental education, and secondly to contemporary interest in catchment management.
The overwhelming body of environmental education research in Australia has been directed at formal education, and schooling in particular. But non-formal environmental education is dynamic and untrammelled by the restrictions encountered in schools (Stevenson 1987, Maher 1986). It is enthusiastically pursued by government, industry, commerce, and a multitude of formal and ad hoc community organisations. I have argued elsewhere the unacknowledged potential for environmental education in the rural sector (Mahony 1995). But this environmental education does not equate with an unimpeded knowledge transfer. It is inextricably linked with the context of the participants, a context that has been described as the force of lifeworld, or 'lebenswelt' (Wals 1992), or the historical, social and political context which gives meaning to environmental behaviours (Robottom & Hart 1993, 41).
But in Australia the recognition of the need for urgent action has not been matched by an understanding of the contextual imperative integrally associated with rural environmental education. Governments in Australia have wholeheartedly embraced participatory policy, partly through economic expediency, but also as a necessary response to potentially catastrophic land degradation and water quality problems. But this policy appears to have been formulated without an appreciation of likely ideological conflict and the need to select appropriate paradigms and methodologies. Both the rural literature (e.g, Martin et al 1992, Gray 1992, Woodhill 1991) and my own research indicate high levels of hostility and frustration associated with attempts to implement the new collaborative policy.
My Williams River interpretivist research has three points to make about the ideological force of context.
The contemporary approach to land and water management is characterised by a move away from control by specialised and independent government agencies and the incorporation of community consultation. This is reflected in the adoption of the new language of 'total', 'whole' or 'integrated' catchment management. However, the complexity of the interactions involved in this new approach has proved to be unexpectedly challenging (Dorcey 1995, Walker & Johnson 1995), and has resulted in a significant move towards computer modelling. Earlier information-gathering systems like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been overtaken by models aimed at facilitating the catchment management process itself, e.g, the Decision Support System (Walker & Johnson 1995) and TCM-Manager (Martens 1995). Such models reflect an ideology where "the computer techniques are more than just tools [but] an attitude, a research direction [and] and extension of the scientist's thinking power" (Zannetti 1995).
Even though a particular model may be "customised", there is little doubt that such an approach favours what has been termed in this paper a 'Bureaucrat way of knowing':
The intention is to build a toolkit front end comprising a task language interpreter and editor that enables users to link external resources including GIS, simulation models, knowledge bases and inference mechanisms in novel combinations pertinent to a particular task (Walker & Johnson 1995, 234).
Such an approach sets aside a different interpretation of 'integrated' catchment management which aims to enfranchise all ideologies. This participatory model emphasises accelerating learning about different forms of catchment governance, while taking aboard experiential lessons about values, consensus, federation and optimum interaction (Dorcey 1995).
The Williams River study illustrates how the adoption of a particular ('Bureaucrat') ideology can fundamentally disempower those operating out of a different ('Contextual Knowledge') ideology. This was achieved in three ways:
It's not really practical to involve the community too much, because most people don't have the time to dedicate to these sort of things.I thought, 'jeez, you lose too much time'. Every time you go away to something it's another day off the farm.
When I first started working in the Catchment you would not have found a person who was concerned about water quality. And now, if you talk to farmers, or anyone else in the catchment, they'll often say, 'Oh yes, there is a water quality problem'.
Contextual views are generally not promoted in an authoritative manner by the Driven Group:
People discuss and problems have perhaps been seen in a different light. You drop a hint somewhere and somebody takes it up and runs with it later on.
and are categorised as 'filling in gaps', corroborative or 'anecdotal' by the Driver Group. The reciprocal nature of the process is not admitted by the Bureaucrat ideology.
The response to critical rural environmental problems in Australia has followed two pathways. The TCM approach, while adopting participatory language has favoured a Bureaucrat ideology. The alternative Landcare movement is the preferred method of Farmer and Environmental ideologies. In this Williams River study, phenomenological research reveals an apparently collaborative TCM-REP instrument forcing the development of competing alliances, and discourses arising from fundamentally different ways of environmental knowing.
For non-formal environmental education in the rural sector, the major finding concerns the force of ideological context. As well as identifying a Bureaucrat position additional to those described in my Wollombi study, the Williams River research suggests that the adoption of an ideological position is not the exclusive prerogative of 'declared' groups such as farmers and environmentalists, but is latent in other individuals and groups, and will emerge when the 'education' being promoted is seen as ill-informed and threatening. The existence of these value-laden ways of knowing indicates that the traditional 'technology transfer' manner of educating needs to give way to methodologies which adopt genuine participation and empowerment.
The concept of 'catchment management' becomes problematic when it involves attempts by one ideology to 'educate' others to their way of knowing, and using their favoured methodologies. In this respect the move towards computer modelling is likely to add to further disempowerment. The Williams River research supports the view that the need is for a genuine participatory education, directed at a form of catchment governance which empowers all ideologies.
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|Author: Dr Denis Mahony is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education,
University of Newcastle, NSW. He specialises in environmental education.
Please cite as: Mahony, D. (1996). Environmental education as a weapon: The importance of contextual knowledge in a rural community. Issues In Educational Research, 6(1), 39-56. http://www.iier.org.au/iier6/mahony.html
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