Originally published on Aurora School Alternative’s website, July 2021. Original article

Consider the current human and environmental health and well-being statistics for Aotearoa New Zealand. Now consider that the average New Zealand lifestyle currently requires 2.1 Earths to maintain, meaning that the way we live our lives today is well beyond what our home planet can sustain. [1] And also consider that education has an important role to play in these outcomes - it is how we learn to become ‘functional’ members of our society. With this in mind our current education system doesn’t seem fit for purpose. So how can a shift in education contribute to the health and wellbeing of Aotearoa?

To explore at least one key shift towards a fit for purpose education system let’s take a step back and revisit two foundational concepts that are core to modern education.  They are so ubiquitous to our lives that we take them, and their original meaning, for granted. The words ecology and economy are closely related - they have emerged from the same root word, and are arguably two sides of the same coin - two complementary skills for achieving health and wellbeing. Eco, oikos in Greek, means house, family or property while logic means knowledge and nomic means management giving us the English words ecology (knowledge of the home environment) and economics (management of the home environment). 

One might therefore assume that based on their shared origins these concepts would still be intimately connected and that our society (and education system) would value and strive to deepen our understanding of the interconnectedness of these concepts.  I think it is quite revealing that our collective cultural knowledge of our home (i.e. the living world that provides our life support system) has become fragmented and greatly diminished, while economics today seems to have forgotten its role in managing our home as it pursues growth at all costs (including significant local and global damage to our life support system). If the goal of economics was in fact to manage the health and wellbeing of our home environment so that we can continue to thrive, how different might our economic model be?

So what is the role of education in all of this? Our current education system largely neglects fostering knowledge of home (most commonly described today in education literature as ecological literacy or ecological intelligence and more broadly as ecological wisdom) as a core function, and only explores the management of this same home through a narrow, neo-liberal economic perspective (i.e. in the unquestioned notions of competition as the defining characteristic of human relations, of citizens as consumers, and economic growth as paramount). Today our education system also largely neglects the fundamental connection between humans and our home environments, the knowledge developed through this immersive and intimate relationship, and how this knowledge can contribute to managing our home/local environment in a way that fosters health and wellbeing. 

Simply put, if Aotearoa is to successfully adapt to a quickly changing world we need resilient and wise New Zealanders - and both of these arise from being firmly grounded in place - from having an intimate connection to ‘home’. Nothing short of a transformation in our collective rediscovery of knowledge of home and the development of a deep sense of connection to and respect for our home place (that arise with the development of local knowledge) is required. This re-focus on ecology and the interconnectedness of ecology and economics as core curriculum needs to be part of an educational reframing if we are to successfully navigate the challenges ahead for our culture and society.  

Luckily many pioneering thinkers, activists and educationalists began this work decades ago. Pioneers like Arne Naess, David Orr, Fritjof Capra, Chet Bowers, Vandana Shiva, Joseph Bharat Cornell, Wagari Maathai, Richard Louv, Joanna Macy, John Seed and others have been promoting, researching, and developing and testing frameworks and approaches that provide this reorientation. And educational pioneers and activists around Aotearoa are embracing an ecological world-view, ecological literacy, deep ecology, place-based education and other disciplines and pedagogies to help reground New Zealanders and foster the core relationships and skills likely needed to build a healthy, resilient, connected and adaptive culture here in Aotearoa.

If you are an educator (and I argue we all are, whether we are conscious of it or not) I invite you to reflect on the values, assumptions and relationships that you prioritise, promote, and reinforce. What role do you want to play in transmitting culture to the next generation? The future health and well-being of Aotearoa depends on it.


1. Sustainable Carrying Capacity of New Zealand. The Royal Society of New Zealand, 2013