A knowledge framework for a cosmopolitan conservation curriculum

Artes Mundi


Education for cosmopolitanism

Education for cosmopolitanism is a nebulous concept because cosmopolitanism comes in many cultural forms which can serve different curricular purposes. Historically, school curricula have reflected national, ethnic and local identities and historical legacies rather than a cosmopolitan outlook. Such a cosmopolitan outlook requires educational systems that promote such cosmopolitan concepts as;

  • moral action and self-responsibility;
  • active agency;
  • consent;
  • inclusiveness and equality;
  • self-understanding;
  • collective enterprise;
  • increased public deliberation and decision-making; and
  • the cultivation of values that transcend the merely local and provincial.

David Held's book 'Cosmopolitanism' sets out eight paramount principles of cosmopolitanism:

(1) equal worth and dignity;
(2) active agency, or people’s right to self-determination;
(3) personal responsibility and accountability;
(4) consent, or a non-coercive political process in which all take part;
(5) collective decision-making about public matters through voting procedures;
(6) inclusiveness and subsidiarity, or equal opportunities for those affected by public issues to shape them;
(7) avoidance of serious harm; and
(8) sustainable development.

Three practical concerns arising from these principles and their associated environmental issues, which are certainly worthy cosmopolitan ideals for any classroom or curriculum, are:

  • sharing our planet (climate change, biodiversity losses);
  • sustaining our humanity (poverty, conflict prevention, global infectious diseases);
  • developing our rulebook (nuclear proliferation, toxic waste disposal, intellectual property rights, genetic research rules, trade, finance and tax rules).

Responding adequately to these challenges will require an increasing emphasis on a kind of globally empathetic cosmopolitanism supported through increased learner autonomy and self-responsibility'. The first two global concerns are the goals of Agenda 21 and the open practical educational framework that emerged from it after the 1992 Rio Environment Summit as ‘Rescue Mission: Planet Earth’. The latter was an educational version of the agenda produced by a team of young people with funds from the UN. The envisaged outcome of its adoption was a youth network from homes-to-nations urging people and politicians to action.

However, the world is intent on maintaining a subject-based curriculum that was designed in the West to produce the specialists required to develop and maintain industrialism, based on a belief that natural resources were limitless. Therefore, cultural ecology is envisaged as a cosmopolitan educational framework for enriching conventional subject-based schooling, providing a Web-enhanced self-learning environment, which explores the managerial connections between culture its supporting ecosystems.

Need for systems thinking

Education for living sustainability is a challenge and a struggle to cut across traditional divisions created in the West to support a culture based on the exploitation of limitless natural resources. In particular, a new interdisciplinary logic of local environmental management is needed to maintain the flows of limited resources into the human ecological niche. It is not adequate to simply incorporate environmentalism as a perspective within existing entrenched subjects.

Cultural ecology is a cross curricular framework to accomodate consumerism and conservation as two sides of the coin of economic development. There are many pathways to build systems thinking via stocks and flows diagrams, and the following mind maps are just three of many conceptual frameworks that define cultural ecology as a holistic view of world development 'from politics to ecosystems'.

Mind map 1

A political economy organises people for production and wealth distribution via a natural economy, which utilises natural resources in a variety of human production systems. This generates cultural diversity expressed through governance and environmental ethics to distribute goods, services and wealth.

The stocks of natural resources are determined by the resource economy which has inputs from photsynthesis (solar economy) and climate, weather and volcanism (planetary economy) .

The level of provision of goods and services has a feedback to the political economy through people's wellbeing and the condition of the environment. The former is expressed as the need for equity in distribution and the latter as the need for conservation of ecosystem services.

Mind map 2


Need for new knowlege frameworks

Often, critical work on our profligate use of planet Earth's resources emerges as a series of interventions into established disciplines and practices. This reveals a fundamental need to assemble new knowledge systems which deal with the future of our species as one ecological community boxed into a relatively small niche in evolution.

This is evident in the trend to expand the boundaries of subject divisions. For example, arising from the great diversity of modern approaches to archaeology has come the need to develop a theory of persons within a more general theory of organisms and environment. These trends point the way to a general educational framework that would link together subjects in a common knowledge system of 'human life', 'consciousness' and 'environment'. This would be a form of cross- disciplinary systems-thinking, where social, economic and material concepts are regarded as being embedded in ecological relations. The aim is to help build the theoretical and practical bridges with the practical aim of facilitating cultural change to sustain the human condition as a global society. Cultural ecology joins up practical approaches from many starting points, for managing the environment in an overcrowded world.


  • information is presented as an integrated collection of topics that defines the points of balance between conservation management and exploitative management;
  • living sustainably requires the production and circulation of new ecological meanings and values;
  • environmental management should be at the centre to help young people claim a right to see the past differently;
  • human history is a continuous process of reinterpretation and transformation of the environment;
  • the past has to be reconstructed, not only to recover traditions which have been misrepresented or rendered invisible, but to search for meanings and images which prefigure current concerns about the environment;
  • we are part of nature and every social action, idea, and rule has appeared in the context of many millennia of primate evolution through natural selection;
  • material conditions are not only determined by a combination of environment and technology. They arise and persist through cultural learning of values applied to resources.

Economic perspective

Cultural ecology centers on cultural-economic and cultural-materialistic approaches to environment. Cultural-economic views stress how value is created through the exchange of goods and services. Cultural-materialistic approaches extend this to consider the expression of environmental values as symbols, such as sacred lands. These symbols are the educational currency for establishing social obligations to selected elements of nature as part of a social feed-back system to legitimize ecosystems that have been embodied with meaning.

Origins has its origins in the Faculty of Science at Cardiff University during the early 1970s where new cross-disciplinary degrees were created to redirect academic trajectories towards ecocentrism.

It was given a boost in Cambridge when the Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University, promoted the idea of a new school interdisciplinary subject centred on world development. The University of Cambridge Examination Syndicate took up this idea in the 1980s, and assembled a new GSCE subject 'natural economy'. The Natural Economy Reseach Unit in Cardiff University developed the subject as a general model for world development education with a grant from the Directorate General of the EC. This was delivered and evaluated in the pioneering experiments with the European satellite education programme. In the late 1990s the topic framework was consolidated around environmental management as part of the EC's LIFE Environment Programme.

The following website is currently receiving over a million new hits a year and the associated blog has several hundred registrations a week.

This wiki is currently receiving between 50 and 100 visitors a day. It is being maintained and developed by a not-for-profit group of UK teachers and academics at Resilience-UK.

Systems thinking mindmap of cultural ecoloogy: Levels 1-3 (access the latest version of the full map at

Mind Map 3