Environmental Education for Peace, Justice and the Integrity of Creation

originally published as ‘Fatal Connections: Violence, Terror and Environmental Degradation’ in EQ Australia, March 2003


Terrorist attacks in New York, Kenya, Bali and the Philippines have unquestionably been horrific and require an urgent response. However at the same time, the responses of the world’s dominant leaders, particularly those in the First World, need to be considered and questioned on a number of levels. The brinkmanship and hegemony of these First World leaders ignores and conceals the root causes of the violence and also fails to acknowledge the devastation being caused to people and places, particularly in the developing world as a result of responding to violence with yet more violence.

Herein lies an essential role for education and for environmental education in particular, whose brief it is to respond to issues which threaten the welfare of the planet and all of its inhabitants. A critical approach to environmental education would reveal that the underlying causes of, and consequences of terrorism are environmental. Such an approach to environmental education would also lead to action to transform the world to one characterised by genuine justice and peace for all.

Global Conflicts and the environment

While global terrorism struck the First World on a large scale with the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City on September 11 2001, terrorism is by no means a new phenomenon in the majority world. In Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and the Philippines, to name but a few, people and the environment have long been the victims of violence and terror carried out in the name of peace and democracy.

The forgotten victims of these conflicts have been the farmers and indigenous people, the poorest of the poor whose voices have never been heard, and the non-human inhabitants of the deserts and forests in which these conflicts have been fought. Fighting these wars in the name of development, peace and democracy has concealed the underlying motivation of the aggressors which has been to gain control of the world’s dwindling finite resources including water, forests, food and oil. A recent article by Sandy Tolan in the Los Angeles Times claims that the US war on Iraq has less to do with weapons of mass destruction than it has with gaining control of the world’s second largest reserves of oil. Australia too would benefit from access to cheaper oil and would then continue to be one of the world’s major producers of greenhouse gases per capita. As for “weapons of mass destruction”, let us not forget America’s use napalm and Agent Orange to destroy the rainforests of Vietnam, and the use of depleted uranium weaponry in Iraq during the Gulf War of the early 1990s.

Terrorism and the environment in the Philippines

Since its initial colonisation by Spain in the 16th century and subsequently by the US and Japan, the Philippines has been exploited for its abundant forest and ocean resources. This exploitation has been accompanied by an invasion of lands occupied by indigenous people throughout the country and the lands of Muslim populations in the southern Philippines. The colonisers have progressively attempted to replace the “primitive” agricultural practices of indigenous people with imported and unsustainable farming techniques. These invasions were, and are still being implemented with the use of terrorising force, forcing the indigenous people to retreat to less accessible and more fragile areas of the country, such as steep mountainsides where they continue their once sustainable farming methods.

Although the Americans formally granted the Philippines independence in 1946, the hegemonic influence of the Americans remains until this day with their military “exercises” and bases. Scientific reports in the Philippines suggest that toxic chemicals from US military bases in the Philippines are polluting groundwaters and various cancers, skin diseases and spontaneous abortions have been causally linked to the toxic legacy of the American bases.

Recently, the American military forces have returned to conduct “exercises” in the Muslim autonomous region of the southern Philippines to eliminate the threat of “terrorism”, reportedly emanating from this part of the country. It just so happens that the southern Philippines is resource rich and is strategically located in close proximity to the busy shipping lanes of the South China Sea and oil-rich Indonesia.

As in most developing countries, the Philippines has had development plans imposed upon it by global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and by Multinational Corporations. In pursuit of industrialisation to compete in a global market which discriminates against developing countries, the Philippines has built large-scale hydro electric dams and has converted peasant farmlands into monoculture agri-businesses.

Large acreages of farmland have been forcibly taken from peasant and indigenous farmers and cleared to make way for export-oriented crops. Farmlands are guarded by the private armies of rich landowners and by the national military forces. Indigenous people, fisherfolk and farmers in the Philippines are being terrorised by these forces throughout the country, further pushing them to the periphery of society.

The agricultural policies of the Philippines are effectively taking food out of the mouths of women and children and have taken the country from being an exporter of rice to one that is now reliant upon imported rice. The government’s incapacity to feed the people is causing untold health, environmental and economic consequences for the country.

In the Philippines, and in other developing countries where a nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage have been appropriated and controlled by foreign interests, the protests of the people have often been met with state-sponsored violence and terrorism to silence them.

Sean McDonagh a long-term Catholic missionary and environmentalist in the Philippines, states that any solution to the debt crisis demands drastic changes in the current international economic, social and political order and he calls for a sustained attack on the root causes of poverty.

How we should respond to terrorism as educators

According to Paolo Freire, in our vocation as educators, teachers should join with their students to reflect upon the underlying causes of the oppression of people and together with our students we should join the struggle for liberation and act upon and transform our world. In order to do this, teachers should be teaching knowledge for transformative action rather than transmitting knowledge uncritically and telling stories that are detached from the reality of students. In this form of libertarian education, both students and teachers are simultaneously teachers and students. Freire stressed that we cannot wait for this type of education, we have to work at it in communion with each other as co-authors of action and with faith in our power to change the world out of a profound love for the world.

Taking Action: Environmental Education in the Philippines

During her work as a rural missionary in the Philippines, the late Sr Nanette Berentsen firmly believed that one needs to become active and search for the place to make a stand in community with others to empower them to realise the cause of their oppression and to change the structures that oppress.

According to the Centre for Environmental Concerns in the Philippines, grassroots education is liberatory, community-based and proactive to empower people to use their voices to challenge the status quo and to fight against the oppression that they have been subjected to for centuries. An important element of grassroots environmental education is the researching of indigenous knowledge systems to find alternative ways of looking at and dealing with the problem of resource depletion and environmental conflicts.

Environmental Education for Australia

For environmental education to be closer to John Fien’s concept of critical education for the environment which includes five essential elements including the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, understandings, attitudes and skills of political literacy and critical praxis, students must be empowered to become active responsible members of society. This necessitates the establishment of more democratic roles in the classroom as advocated by Freire and the establishment of a new curriculum that is negotiated with students to enable them to work on socially-useful projects which are relevant to them. The goals of environmental education are contained in UNESCO’s Tbilisi Declaration of 1977:

  1. to foster clear awareness of, and concern about, economic, social, political, and ecological interdependence in urban and rural areas;
  2. to provide every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment, and skills needed to protect and improve the environment;
  3. to create new patterns of behavior of individuals, groups, and society as a whole towards the environment.

Within such an environmental education program, Australian students need to be informed of the connections between environmental degradation, human welfare and terrorism. According to Freire, the more they are challenged in this way, the more students will feel obliged to respond because they will see the challenge as interrelated to other problems within a total context that is relevant to them and gradually they will become committed to be in solidarity with the world to transform it – a world characterised by genuine peace and justice for all.

Recommended reading

Fien, J, 1993, Education for the Environment: Critical Curriculum Theorising and Environmental Education, Deakin University, Geelong

Freire, P., 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum, New York

McDonagh, S., 1990, The Greening of the Church, Claretian Publications, Quezon City, Philippines

Rural Missionaries in the Philippines, 1991, ‘Whatever May Happen to Me’, Claretian Publications, Quezon City, Philippines


The River Beneath

What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere, it is hiding a well.

Antoine St. Exupery

In every ecosystem, in every mountain, river and tree, we can see the exquisite and sublime splendour of creation made manifest. We are captivated by the glorious colours of a sunset and the majesty of a raptor in its effortless flight. On the surface, nature provides us with these gifts to fill our lives with beauty. On a deeper level, these visible gifts of nature call us to contemplate how much less our lives would be without them.

The hidden river  

From the remoteness of an aeroplane or satellite image, the geographical centre of arid Australia appears to be a barren place. However, when one is privileged to be present in the midst of this ancient wilderness, one comes to see that this arid landscape of ancient mountains and streams is abundant with the gifts of nature; and one in search of the essence of life would do well to spend some time here.

The renowned Todd River is known as Lhere Mparntwe (ler-ra m-barn-twa) to the Central Arrente people, native title holders of Alice Springs. The Todd begins its journey in the MacDonnell Ranges and flows south for a distance of approximately fifty kilometres through a terrain of rocky hills and steep-sided gorges, before it seeps formlessly into the sands of the Simpson Desert.

The region is extremely arid, with an average annual rainfall at Alice Springs of just over 270mm. For ninety-five percent of the year, the Todd either does not flow, or it flows very little. Its broad flat bed of coarse granitic sand merges almost seamlessly with the surrounding desert landscape through which it ambles. The sand, which consists of quartz, felspar and mica, has weathered and eroded from the granitic outcrops during blistering summers and freezing winters. Once in a while, heavy falls of convective rain pummel the rocky ground with such intensity that this seemingly benign and unremarkable feature is suddenly transformed into a bank-to-bank torrent of muddy water and debris that spills over into surrounding low-lying areas. Then, the beauty and power of its presence in the land is revealed. When the Todd River flows, it is a time of celebration, joy and renewal. But the water lingers only for a few days on the surface before it disappears out of sight, replenishing the reservoir that lies deep below the river bed.

Guardians of ancient wisdom

Accompanying the ancient desert streams along their journey is the mighty River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis). In the stillness that follows the receding floods, the giant river red gums become more prominent, marking the course when all that is otherwise left to see is a dry corridor of sand. Many of the trees are centuries-old and invite us to consider how they have been able to thrive in an arid climate. The river red gums have an extensive root system. In times of plenty, the red gum’s surface roots extract surface moisture. Yet such times are rare and so to survive the perennial drought, the river red gums need to put down deep roots; penetrating rock and anchoring and uniting them more firmly to the earth as they continue to seek deeper life-sustaining water. Yet another means by which the red gum survives the tough times is that it gives up part of itself, primarily in the form of dropping large branches that would otherwise consume too much precious water. So, an old river red gum with its massive trunk and gnarled branches conveys humbleness and patience as it stands resolutely besides the desert stream in times of drought, both knowing that life-giving water will arrive once again to replenish them.

It is awe-inspiring to ponder these giant sentinels.  The sturdy girth of the ancient trunks, the intricate texture of its bark, the graceful droop of the leaves and flowers are like layers of beauty one sees in the details of a master’s painting. And if one sits under the trees long enough, there is a delightful avian display – honeyeaters and babblers chattering while they feed; ringnecks visiting tree hollows formed from fallen branches; diamond doves and galahs pecking at fallen seeds on the ground; the sacred kingfisher calling out its territory; and on the high bare branches, predatory kites and hobbies keep watch.

Learning as we pass through

Tourists on their journey around Australia come to Alice Springs hoping that they will see the Todd River flow. Among the non-indigenous people of Alice Springs, a resident’s degree of localness is ascertained by asking: How many times have you seen the Todd flow? Apparently, having had the privilege of seeing the Todd flow at least three times makes one a bona-fide local. However, no matter how many times one has seen the water flow, we are all tourists merely passing through to somewhere else in search of deeper water. Perhaps it takes a real old-timer, like the river red gum, to understand that the river has never really stopped flowing.

The Todd, like many other rivers in Central Australia, has been able to carve its way through the massive MacDonnell Ranges, an almost unseen dimension that has shaped the land for eons.  A journey of contemplation along the Todd and other desert rivers can lead to us to appreciate the value of nature’s hidden gifts.  And once we begin to contemplate, we come to see that nature’s gifts exist to guide us along on our journey. Like the waters below the Todd, hidden from our sight, there is a more profound gift of nature that lies deep below the surface, fathomless and eternal; the very essence of our existence which we all search and strive for just as the river red gum draws deeper from the hidden well during times of drought. We all seek deeper water like the red gum and we all journey into the wilderness like Lhere Mparntwe.

This article was written by Glenn and Anna Abblitt; it was originally published in Earthsong Journal Spring 2007

Finding our way: Walking together for wholeness and reconciliation

Sunset Lake Mungo

(article originally published in Earthsong Journal, Issue 7, Autumn 2014)

Long before it dried up and much longer before it was named as it now is, Lake Mungo was home to the Mutthi Mutthi, Barkindji and Nyiampaa peoples. As the landscape continued to form, the first humans to walk across the ancient continent shaped their culture, language and spirituality through their intimate knowledge of the eternal rhythms of the land and the sky above. In the quiet stillness of the night, they drew their own constellations from the stars which had guided their pathways and would always show them their way home.

Unlike younger civilisations on other continents, these ageless peoples did not form hierarchical power structures and write authoritarian doctrines; neither did they subdue the flora and fauna, not because they were incapable of doing so. Instead, they lived in harmony with the natural laws, knowing that the land provided all that was needed. In turn, they ensured that what was would always be, through the telling of stories for each generation to pass the lore along to the next.

Compelling evidence of the world’s oldest continuous civilisation has been revealed by the shifting sands at Lake Mungo. The burnt remains of evening meals left in the hearths on the shores of the lake 40,000 years ago, the cremated remains of Mungo Lady and the ochred bones of Mungo Man, show that these enduring spiritual people had performed ritualised practices long before any other culture in the world.

Perhaps the most captivating echo of the ancient past is to be seen in fossilised footprints which record the moment the soles of men, women and children were in intimate contact with their country: a 1.94m tall man pursuing a kangaroo, a mother with her child on her hip and an older child playfully trotting off to her side; their souls now walk in the eternity of the Dreaming, along with the other elders who followed in their footsteps. For the Mutthi Mutthi, Barkindji and Nyiampaa, these sacred sites and artefacts continue to be the foundation of their spirituality; however, to the people who came immediately after them, they were inconsequential and intangible.

Wherever European settlers and explorers went in Australia, their two-dimensional maps reflected their worldviews as they proceeded to draw straight lines to divide the country into states of power and blocks of farming land. They interpreted their scriptural readings as a directive to go forth and have dominion over all the creatures of the earth. They walked leather-soled across “Terra Nullius”, bringing their animals, hard-hooved and steel-shod to tear at the grass and to shatter the fragile soil. They ignored the inherent value of the land and imposed their economic imperative. Confined by barbed wire and held in chains, infected with disease and supplied with poisoned food, tribal families were decimated and generations were stolen. No longer able to walk or talk the country, the language and spirituality of the world’s oldest continuous culture had been targeted for destruction.

Despite meticulous mapping, the newly established colonies and their disparate people were lost and divided along lines of language, religion and colour. After two centuries of misappropriation, the emerging nation continued to invade the territories of the First Nations peoples. In its misguided search to define itself, and partly to acknowledge the ‘other’, boomerangs and didgeridoos were being sold to the world as ‘Australian’ culture, while the people who created this knowledge and technology continued to be separated from the source of their own distinct culture. Blinded by a limited monetarist and paternalistic worldview, ill-conceived attempts at reconciliation continue to create divergent pathways, hindering human development and widening the gap between two realities.

All pilgrims on the journey to reconciliation must start from a position of humility. Their hearts and minds need to be set on arriving at the wholeness of spirit and the unity of all people. Wholeness comes about, not by having more, but by being more; by acknowledging the truth: the truth of this country and its people.

The first step then, is to recognise that at the heart of Aboriginal culture and spirituality is an ongoing connection to country. After accepting an invitation to walk on the land of the ancients, such as at Lake Mungo, one must acknowledge the traditional custodians and the elders, both past and present. To be still and silent on country is to know that we are all part of the one creation.

The pathway to reconciliation is a shared journey that brings wholeness to all.  With patience and humility, we should walk gently on this earth as brothers and sisters sharing the gifts that this land provides; together we will find our way on common ground to create a common humanity and a common future.



Clark, V; Knowing Home: A reflection of personal spirituality by a woman from the River Country (DVD), Albert Street Productions

Fox, A; 2010, Mungo National Park, The Beaten Track Group in association with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service

Lawrence, H; 2006, Mungo over Millennia: The Willandra landscape and its people; Maygog Publishing

Desertification – a spiritual journey through the desert

IMG_1208(First published in Earthsong Journal, Issue 5, Spring 2006) All that appears and happens about and around us is uncertain, transient. But there is a Supreme Being hidden therein as a Certainty, and one would be blessed if one could catch a glimpse of that Certainty and hitch one’s wagon to it. The quest for that Truth is the summum bonum of life. Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 250 Like the shifting sands of a desert, globalisation is relentlessly encroaching upon and consuming our lives and the earth. Globalisation operates through the machinery of its many manifestations, each conspiring to distort our vision of the world in order to conceal the truth of their activities. Industrialisation is driving us to distraction by filling our lives with a multitude of material things that we do not need. Acting in concert with industrialisation is commercialisation, which by glamorising and sanitising the products of globalisation, deceives us into believing that we need to consume in order to be. The consequences of this are that we cannot distinguish between our wants and our needs, and we cannot see the long-term environmental damage that this consumption is inflicting on the planet. Urbanisation now occupies every horizon so that no matter which direction we look in, our vision is dominated by the machinery of globalisation. If we are to heal the planet and ourselves, we need to see beyond this limited horizon to envision a better world for the generations yet to come. To this end, I would like to advocate for a process of ‘desertification’; that is, a journey through the desert where it is possible to see a farther horizon. In April 2005 I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to take up a teaching position in Alice Springs. Due mainly to the dominance of the natural environment in Alice Springs, there is a strong sense of place here – scorching summer days and freezing winter nights have sculpted the landscape and the people of Central Australia, imbuing this place with an overwhelming sense of earthiness, rawness and authenticity. The southern entrance to Alice Springs is guarded by the ramparts of the MacDonnell Ranges, which are often dramatically and breathtakingly silhouetted on the western horizon by the setting sun. Despite the infrequency of rainfall, it is water that has created a spectacular landscape of magnificent gaps, gorges and chasms along the length of the Ranges. The daytime sky in Alice Springs is normally an infinitely deep blue, devoid of any cloud. But when the heavens open, the landscape is transformed by the most surreal and sublime colours. Swinging around from the north, full circle through east, south and west and back to the north again, one is filled with awe and wonder by the visual splendour on every horizon – ink-blue clouds, emblazoned with a rainbow sash on one horizon, through to ethereal hues of lavender, pink and gold on the other. These transient arrays of clouds and rays of sunshine produce colour combinations that will never be seen again in this way, they provide us with a fleeting glimpse of the Master’s hand. At night, a sphere of a billion stars is swept across by a broad arc of the Milky Way, and it is so quiet that one drifts off into deep space, looking both forward and back in time. It is an easy thing to romanticise Central Australia, but it also has its challenges. These challenges require a local response by an empowered community concerned about the future of this special place. As a teacher, it is my aim to empower the children of Central Australia to respond to these problems by helping them to envision a better world. But I am aware that I am only passing through here, and so when I teach I do not just teach for the current generation, I also teach for the generations ahead. The sense of place and the awareness of passing through the desert landscape is brought into even greater focus when one physically travels overland to Alice Springs. It’s a long road from Melbourne to Alice Springs, most of it through semi-arid and arid landscapes. The first time I made the journey it was a means of travelling from one place to another. The subsequent road trips however, have been spiritual journeys in search of meaning and wisdom, in the same way that Robert Pirsig travels by motorbike through the ‘high country of the mind’. Along the desert highway there are long-abandoned car wrecks, symbolic of our throwaway industrialised society. But the wrecks can also be useful reminders that the more one journeys along the highway of life, the more one should let go of one’s useless baggage; such things as prejudices, possessions and ambitions should be abandoned in order to step more lightly on the earth and to leave more room to carry one another. In the Philippines, where I also had the privilege of teaching for some years, when people pass through a landscape they will often say: “tabi, tabi po’, which translates to something like: ‘spirits, by your leave, we respectfully ask you for permission to pass through here’. And as one travels through this desert landscape, there is a sense of passing through a place inhabited by spirits and a sense that we are indeed privileged to travel through this sacred country. Although the arid interior of Australia is sparsely vegetated, and in parts totally devoid of plant life, it is far from being desolate, as many people in the cities seem to think. For those who care to look, there is beauty to be seen in the living creatures – soaring Black Kites spiral effortlessly on desert thermals, a gang of white cockatoos carouse, galahs gracefully wheel in unison, a majestic Wedge-tailed eagle stands imperiously over a road-kill kangaroo, and amidst the harshness there are delicate wildflowers like the delightful Sturt’s Desert Pea. It is tempting to speed along the highway as fast as one can in order to get to the next destination. However, there are rewards for taking time to stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere to listen to the silence and to stare wide-eyed in wonder at a timeless landscape. The scale of the desert puts one’s life into perspective. No matter how fast we travel towards it, the horizon is endless and eternal and this inspires one to reflect upon our finiteness amidst the infinite. These journeys that I have been privileged to travel on have been part of my ‘desertification’, my ongoing spiritual transformation. But one doesn’t need to journey through the desert to be transformed. One can journey through any natural place where one will catch a glimpse of divine beauty hidden therein as a certainty. The more I journey, the more I let go, the more truth I then discover and the more meaning my life has. These journeys through the desert remind me that we are just passing through here and we can’t take things with us beyond the horizon. We must travel more lightly to leave the planet to those who will follow us.