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Whose fallacies now?

Tim Leduc has presented a thoughtful account of problems within academia that have to be worked around by whoever promotes interdisciplinary themed approaches to learning. Environmental studies was one of the first to experience this, and it continues to do so, even though (or especially now) that the first programs are entering their fifth decade in Canadian and other universities. The institutional impediments come from deeply entrenched, highly specialized research and education programs organized into mutually isolated and competitive disciplines and professions. These are closely affiliated with the larger political economy that academia is designed to serve, and, as a consequence, that is supported by the privileged classes who dominate government, corporate, and other mainstream institutions. The cultural systems that underly and bind this together are usually some unexamined mix of beliefs that are anthropocentric ("Man" as a measure of all things); pragmatic (useful knowledge is the only worthwhile knowledge); economistic (goal of endless economic growth and material wealth, mainly for those who already own and control much of it, and with no sense of enoughness); and technocratic (continual invention of new tools and techniques as the only realistic strategy for overcoming limits and constraints). While it is foolish to reject all this out-of-hand, apprehensiveness continues to intrude and deepen.

This situation was apparently the kind of "cultural tyranny" that the late John Livingston railed against in his long, rambling essay on "The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation" some 30 years ago (Livingston 1981). While governments and some private groups were protecting nature in parks and other protected areas, their rationalizations for doing so were anthropocentric and resourcist, hence (in his view) fundamentally wrong. There were no outward signs of respect for the intrinsic value of other living things to exist in their own right. The only "rational" justification was because conservation could serve the various needs or wants of Man. The correct approach would presumably entail "biophilia", the love of life and living systems for their own sake. This should be understood as a fundamental human need, as proposed by Erich Fromm and Edward Wilson in this same general era.

Leduc suggests that the same beliefs and value systems impede genuine environmental studies program in academia, because the institutional purposes and administrative structures discourage serious examination of ethical issues (such as whatever is underlying say "greenness" as the technologically efficient and sufficient solutions for environmental problems), while deeper questions about ontology and epistemology upon which these are based are scarcely recognized at all. Technical expertise is the first or only priority. Hence, it seems the fallacy metaphor of Livingston (a faculty member in York University's FES at the time) came to mind.

These questions certainly resonated with my own experiences in striving to develop an environmental studies program in an academic setting. I last wrote about it (Francis 1992) as some North American, European, and Australian post-secondary environmental education programs were entering their third decade. I drew upon a growing literature about experiences that people in universities elsewhere were reporting, as well as much shop-talk during several international conferences during that era. My theme was "escaping the institutional impasse" that at the time was posed by different mixes of deeply entrenched disciplinary and professional isolation and arrogance, the inappropriateness of much conventional classroom pedagogy, the reward systems that drove individual careerism rather than collegial cooperation, the policies of funding agencies and academic journals that rejected most trans-or inter-disciplinary initiatives, and entry level job classifications for junior staff in government and the private sector that presume academia's responsibility was primarily job training.

However, to the extent that other academics were safely pre-occupied in the narrowness of their various specialties, there was a substantial interstitial space inside academic institutions to experiment with different ways of doing things. Having students learn from contemporary situations unfolding around them, especially ones of special interest to each and in which they might participate in some way, allowed for de facto interdisciplinary perspectives (without using the jargon) and discursive interpretations that included reflective insights and ethical considerations. I have the sense that Leduc experienced this as well at York's FES. An environmental studies program that just railed against the status quo (as a few of the very first and short lived ones seemed to do) would not only become difficult to sustain, it could also handicap students who graduated from them, thus posing a basic ethical issue, especially if the students (or their parents) were expecting much of what the rest of the institution said it provided.

But, the external contexts were showing signs of change. Many governments, including some in Canada, had created environmental ministries, albeit staffed with people from traditional professions, during the 1970s. There were also the IUCN/World Conservation Union's World Conservation Strategies (in 1980 and 1991) with biodiversity conservation as a main theme; the widely publicized and deliberately ambiguous concept of "sustainable development" from the Brundtland Commission (in 1987); and the planning phase (1987-1990) for global-scale science in the first International Geosphere-Biosphere Program. Livingston's lament coincided with the early phases of what was to become the US and British led triumphalism of neo-liberal economic doctrines and supporting neo-conservative ideologies in the "Western" world. It was a time of ringing declarations about the end of history and claims that there were no other alternatives for power, peace, and prosperity. "Globalization" through corporate-driven expansions combined with political pressures from dominant powers on weak States were the key to salvation. But there were obvious difficulties that international organizations, as well as NGOs, had identified without challenging state corporate power constellations.

"Sustainability" as a societal ideal worth pursuing was always somewhat elusive when probed more deeply, but by the 1990s it was widely adopted rhetorically in the government, corporate, and NGO worlds. At the same time, other kinds of academic programs started to re-label themselves "environmental" or as committed to the ideals of sustainability. Leduc's current research should throw useful light on how much of this was vacuous re-branding to make the old disciplines look attractive and relevant, or the extent to which there had been incorporation of new knowledge and understanding from sources beyond their own disciplines. But the sustainability discourse, including attempts to "deconstruct" it, was one that environmental studies could readily enter, and the academic interstices proved to be helpful. "Biophilia" was also brought into some of this under topics such as "deep ecology", inclusion of moral considerability for all sentient beings, and bioregionalism as the optimal scale for local, community-based sustainable societies that included nature, partly for its own sake.

So fast forward. The environmental problematique refuses to go away despite important improvements in places. But it is only a part of the overall situation. Documented failures (sometimes quite sudden) of resource management systems continue to come in from around the world. International groups of scientists now write urgently about looming global-scale failures or crises (e.g. Foley, 2010) along with "missing institutions" by which they mean a combination of state failures and market failures to even acknowledge the situation let alone address it (e.g. Walker and others, 2009). Neo-liberal economies are being brought down by their total reliance on market fictions combined with corporate failures, massive debt and financial swindles; the neo-conservative ideologies launched by the US and Britain lie in vitriolic shambles and denial; while the world economic and political power has shifted extensively away from Europe and America towards Asia. New and fast-changing information and communication technologies are allowing many new "horizontal" nodes and networks of people throughout the world to come together. Governance, rooted increasingly in the polycentric groupings of local communities may gradually be able to bypass some aspects of entrenched hierarchical institutions, including academia where necessary, while fostering alternative developments that can be either much better or much worse. Web 2.0 provides evidence of both.

Older beliefs that the world is basically a huge machine to be managed as if it were one are evaporating, and along with it, the earlier underpinnings of much of the rationalization for science and technology as it is embedded in academia and other institutions. As Jerry Ravetz (1999, 2002) and others have long pointed out, we are now mostly in a world of "post-normal science" where decisions can often be urgent, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, and usable science is largely absent. It is increasingly realized that the world might best be recognized scientifically as huge intricate sets of complex social and ecological systems linked across a wide range of space and time scales. Their behaviors and functions remain not only unknown but largely unknowable. Hence, "surprises" can suddenly emerge. Some, but not all, in academia are becoming humbled by this realization, and are starting to form new networks of people with similar emerging understanding about complex systems from otherwise very diverse prior backgrounds. Environmental studies people are not always among them. Whether or not different "complex systems" approaches will lead to re-enactments of the disciplinary imperialisms of old within academia remains to be seen.

"Globalization" is taking the form of transformative changes forced on social-ecological systems and governance structures at all scales and in ways that will, in places, be brutal, as poorly understood thresholds or "tipping points" are reached. In this new era of the "politics of unsustainability," inventing desirable forms of sustainability in a world of diminishing livable spaces entails capacities for resilience, adaptation, and social innovation along with technical know-how dedicated to survival more than enrichment, as well as governance capabilities that can facilitate and support this. Interdisciplinary research on a range of topics with relevance for communities is now found in most post-secondary institutions but with all of academia engulfed by the global changes underway, much more is likely to become expected than that. But what, and how?

A recent article on environmental education led-off with a future scenario where the teaching profession is standing trial for crimes against humanity and the rest of nature because of its failure to teach what students needed to know in order to engage with and adapt to the planetary changes now underway. The defense plea was that there was no time to do this because they had to cover the curriculum (Johnston 2009). Academics have more leeway, but they might too plead about the never-ending scramble to secure grants for research in disciplinary specialties, larger classes with fewer resources, and adherence to dated curricula required by professional accreditation bodies. Institutional impasses remain. With all manner of fallacies coming home to roost, important thresholds associated with credibility are on the horizon. As a complex system itself, academia as many of us know it, is vulnerable to sudden changes without notice, signaled perhaps by withdrawals of societal support for the old, with major reconfigurations of organization into other modes serving other demands altogether. Like Web 2.0, this might be much better or much worse.


Foley, J. 2010. Boundaries for a Healthy Planet. Scientific American 302(4): 54-57.

Francis, G. 1992. Environmental Education in Academia: Escaping the institutional impasse. The Environmental Professional 14: 278-283.

Johnston, J. 2009. Transformative Environmental Education: Stepping outside the curriculum box. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 14: 149-157.

Livingston. J. A. 1981. The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Ravetz, J.R. 1999. What is Post-Normal Science? Futures 31 (7): 647-653.

Ravetz, J.R. 2002. The Post-Normal Science of Precaution. Post-Normal Science-P: 1-14.

Walker, B. and 19 others. 2009. Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions. Science 325 (5946): 1345-1346.

George Francis is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. He was appointed as the founding chairin 1970 of what is now the Department of Environment and Resources Studies. He continues to participate in on-going studies with others on themes of governance for enhanced sustainability in complex social ecological systems. He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Francis, George
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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