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8. Salt and vinegar: Education for sustainability in the Murray-Darling Basin 1983-1998

by David Eastburn

(includes Case study: Special Forever - a rural capacity realisation program)

July 2001

The environmental education program, along with the whole Murray–Darling Basin Initiative, developed as a result of radical changes to management required to comply with the water quality and environmental components in the River Murray Waters Agreement amendment of 1982 (implemented in 1984). This amendment followed the recognition of salinity as a serious issue for the health of the River Murray, and the viability of the industries, towns and cities dependent on its water, during the drought of 1967-68. There was also a realisation that the scale of the problem would require interstate cooperation.

Responsibility for improved water quality and environmental health required River Murray Commission input to the management of land in the catchments surrounding the rivers and ultimately the integrated management of the whole Murray–Darling Basin. This requirement was much more complex than the relatively mechanical process of managing the Murray for water quantity. It led rapidly to the establishment of the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council (1985), Murray–Darling Basin Agreement (1987), Murray–Darling Basin Commission (1988), the Natural Resources Management Strategy (1989) and the development of the Murray–Darling Basin Initiative to cooperatively manage the resources of the million square kilometre Murray–Darling Basin as one unit.

The people who laid the foundations for the integrated management of the natural resources of the Murray–Darling Basin, recognised that the future viability of the region would require the active involvement of its residents and gaining the support of other Australians. With the exception of the Snowy Mountains Authority’s desire to gain public support for its activities (Hudson 1965: Foreword), this represented a major change in thinking for resources management organisations in Australia, where ‘access to information and participation in decision making has never been encouraged by industry or government; in many cases … the public has been seen as an obstacle to be pushed aside by coercive force if necessary’ (Bowen, 1994: 12).

Following fact-finding tours of parts of the Murray–Darling Basin, on 24 August 1983, the bipartisan River Murray Parliamentry Committee (forerunner of the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council) presented a number of recommendations and observations to Federal Parliament, of relevance to a future community education program. It noted that there was a fundamental deficiency of accessible information about the river system available to the public and suggested that a cooperative educational approach be employed in a national campaign to promote greater awareness of the Murray–Darling Basin. It identified a need to take a long term view and make all Australians aware of the significance of the Murray–Darling Basin because ‘should this area be permitted to deteriorate any further, every Australian will suffer because of the severe impact on our quality of life …’ i.e. resource degradation in the region is ultimately a sociocultural problem of national significance.

The Committee discussed a fundamental flaw in past attempts by State resource management authorities to use simplistic technical and structural approaches alone to address resource use issues:

There is a tendency, I think, for governments to believe that the only way to overcome these problems is by regulations, controls and other measures of that type. We believe ... that we have to put tremendous emphasis on education. Not only do we need to make every Australian aware of the national significance of Australia’s one and only major water resource but also, within the region itself, the educational program must be directed to the individual…
Connolly 1983

The Murray–Darling Basin Commission’s (MDBC) large scale environmental communication strategy therefore had its origins in the field of education, which involves maximising individuals’ potential to contribute to a sustainable world, as well as information transfer. Community capacity building through education would help to tap the Basin’s greatest resource — its people — to more effectively contribute to the management of their natural resources and to deal with the ‘crisis of sustainability’ in their communities:

As a field of professional practice, environmental education seeks to develop the understandings, values and action skills necessary for people to work with others to improve the quality and sustainability of their natural and social environments. Environmental education seeks to provide lifelong learning experiences through which people may take a place in society as informed, committed and active citizens, who are capable of playing a part in making their society a better place in which to live by caring about the needs of all species, and by speaking out against social and ecological injustice.
Fien 1993: vi

Possible institutional impediments to the effective management of the Murray–Darling Basin were also discussed by the Committee in Parliament at the time. These included professional self-interest obstructing alternative approaches, a bias towards ‘engineering solutions’ by State authorities, the tendency to treat the symptoms and not the problem, and delusions of technocratic superiority excluding public input to decision making.

In 1984, the River Murray Commission created an ‘education’ position in response to the River Murray Parliamentary Committee recommend-ations. On my appointment to the position, I was informed that in the relatively near future the organisation was likely to become a Basin Commission. I was directed to develop foundations on which a long-term, integrated community environmental education program could be built, according to the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee. A key role of the program was to introduce the residents of the Basin to the concept of ecologically sustainable development and to assist them into its debate.

I carried out extensive consultation with resource management organisations, non-government organisations and relevant individuals between 1984-1989 to obtain ideas for the establishment of a large scale environmental education program for the Murray–Darling Basin and broadly to answer the question: ‘what has been wrong with our environmental [education] efforts over the past …years … that they have not worked?’ (Bowen 1994: 36). This exercise revealed that the traditional use of ‘education’ by State resource management bureaucracies, to manage specific short term situations, would not be adequate for an education program on a Basin-wide (and national) scale. Consultation supported the River Murray Parliamentary Committee’s call for a participative learning process and suggested the development of a relationship-building education program informed broadly by the Snowy Mountains Scheme model. It specifically identified video/television as a key medium to reach both urban and rural audiences, provide a ‘voice’ for Basin residents and scientists, and to facilitate ongoing consultation with the community and associated government and non-government organisations through the accessibility which video production provides.

Consultation also revealed the use of science as the main vehicle for environmental education in schools to be problematic because of its exclusive nature and inadequate discussion of the sociocultural aspects of sustainability. A medium was required that would accept the concept of diversity and maximise the opportunities for individual participation. It had to be able to integrate environmental education, science and social science with communication and also command sufficient status within schools and society generally to sustain continuity. Most importantly, it had to be accessible to all who wished to participate. English classes were to be the vehicle for school environmental education for a sustainable Murray–Darling Basin. The education program for capacity building would initially focus on primary schools as this would ensure total geographic coverage of the Basin. Primary schools are at the centre of most communities. Overseas research also supported my observations that middle childhood (approximately 7-11) was a critical period in a person’s life for connecting with the environment.

A generation-long community education strategy for the Murray–Darling Basin (as recommended by the River Murray Parliamentary Committee in 1983) was developed in 1989 with the assistance of an Intergovernmental Communication Working Group (ICWG) and consisted of a cumulative process which would evolve through three broad, but not exclusive, eight year themes. Stage one (1990-1998) would be about the Murray–Darling Basin to raise its profile within the region and to all Australians; Stage two (1998-2006) would involve relationship-building and human resource development with communities in the Murray–Darling Basin (capacity building programs such as ‘Special forever’ and Reading the Land); and Stage three (2006-2015) would involve working with empowered and informed community members for the Murray–Darling Basin. It was anticipated that this process would achieve the aim:

To contribute significantly to the achievement of an informed, ecologically literate, empowered and active community with a Basin (holistic) ethic, in one generation (2015).

To reach and involve a diverse audience over a huge geographic area, the ICWG supported the establishment of a multi-faceted environmental communication program consisting of a range of print and electronic mediums, events, the implementation of community education projects and programs, and the mass media. This decision was vindicated by Malcolm (1992: 33), who suggested that effective in-depth environmental education ‘depends on using a wide range of mutually reinforcing educational approaches in long-running programs’. The communication infrastructure and educational processes were designed to facilitate authentic community participation and not simply to transfer information for propaganda and control purposes.

The projects that the Working Group recommended to commence the long-term education process included:

  • A Conference of educators and community facilitators to establish a support base throughout the Murray–Darling Basin;
  • A video program to reach a broad audience, provide ‘two-way’ communication between the government and Basin communities, and facilitate ongoing consultation;
  • A travelling exhibition for initial regional and capital city awareness and team-building. Communities would have the opportunity to showcase their region and to tell their story as part of the exhibition;
  • A program to involve primary school children, to ensure the representation of future generations (an attempt to address the generally hollow policy of intergenerational equity). It would also achieve extensive geographic coverage of the Murray–Darling Basin as primary schools are generally at the centre of communities;
  • A well illustrated book to be written about the Murray–Darling Basin (a frank assessment of the conditions of the Basin’s resources).

At the launch of the Natural Resources Management Strategy for the Murray–Darling Basin in April 1989, the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council announced the establishment of a communication and consultation unit with a strategic role to encourage community understanding, support, and participation in the Murray–Darling Basin Initiative. One responsibility highlighted by the Council was to ‘show how local concerns fit into a broader Basin-wide picture’. Funding for the Unit (and the Community Advisory Committee) was to be provided equally by the governments and, although administered by the Murray–Darling Basin Commission office, be clearly identified and separate from Commission office funding. I applied for and won the position of Director of Communications. The educational objectives of the Natural Resources Management Strategy for the Murray–Darling Basin were to promote a stewardship ethic by increasing the community’s knowledge and appreciation of the Basin’s natural and cultural resources; to:

  • Develop community appreciation of environmental and ecological values.
  • Develop community understanding of natural processes.
  • Develop community appreciation of the values of Aboriginal and historic heritage.

A change in executive staff (significantly with no Snowy Mountains Scheme experience) introduced the traditional State department perception of a Communications Unit being ‘arms and legs’ for the office. The strategic role, professional status and particularly the scope of the program were contested from 1990. The community conference, identified by the Intergovernmental Communication Working Group as the most immediate priority, was vetoed at an advanced stage of planning and the Group itself disbanded. So began a process identified by UNESCO (1980: 26, cited in Robottom 1992: 84) as a ‘recourse to technocracy’:

The problems of the environment are indeed complex ones. They involve numerous parameters and interrelations. Lacking the necessary knowledge and approaches, individuals admit defeat and hand the problems over to the specialists. It is in terms such as these that recourse to technocracy is frequently justified. The result is the abandonment of any attempt to involve ordinary people, who come to be regarded as mere operatives or consumers.

While the momentum developed before this time ensured that most of the proposed educational activities were implemented (video program, primary school program and touring exhibition), the overall program was slowed by budget cuts to strategic activities, pre- and post review ‘decision limbo’, and mandate/policy ‘indecision’. The pendulum began its ‘recourse to technocracy’ from ‘tremendous emphasis on education’. My research after leaving the Commission identified a clear pattern that contestation largely related to community capacity building activities. Commission office support, such as media liaison, speech writing and information publication (print and electronic) was highly respected by target audiences. Fortunately, one capacity building strategy, the primary school ‘Special forever’ program, survived unscathed; possibly because it conformed to traditional perceptions of an educational activity being ‘for children’. This case study provided the opportunity to examine the philosophy and approach proposed for the overall Murray–Darling Basin Commission environmental communication strategy in microcosm.

‘Special forever’ refers to a quality sustainable future. It is an inclusive environmental education–literacy program, involving activities that provide primary school children with ‘space’ and encouragement to explore, reflect on and to express what is environmentally and socially important to them. The program, developed in partnership with the Primary English Teaching Association (PETA), was designed to encourage cooperation and individual empowerment to enable students to deal with the ‘crisis of sustainability’. It uses ‘life’ as much as ‘school’ education. It is a participatory learning process, whereby students develop and present their own stories and images about the region for each other and other Australians, as a contribution to national awareness, Murray–Darling Basin awareness, personal awareness, problem-solving, and self-esteem. The general outcome of this process was well expressed in feedback from Robinvale Consolidated School in Victoria which stated ‘ The result was fantastic. Non-interested writers suddenly became authors…’. Plumwood (1996: 81) suggests that the articulation of personal experience is a significant learning and emancipatory process:

Many liberatory educationists ... have emphasised the importance of the sphere of personal experience … the articulation of personal experience is a crucial learning resource for the oppressed who are routinely insulted, ignored or downgraded in dominant styles of education which aim to create universal forms of knowledge and interchangeability or uniformity of educational product.

The ‘Special forever’ program reached and directly involved hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Murray–Darling Basin in a participative learning ‘community’ to contribute to sustainability. Twenty-five volunteer Regional Coordinators provided support to more than 1,200 volunteer teachers who involved around 35,000 students and tens of thousands of community members in the project each year. Volunteer professionals (journalists, librarians, educators, authors) from the communities involved, evaluated tens of thousands of pieces of children’s work (every student who participated) at the school, region and Basin level. The children’s work was exposed to a range of audiences and some was selected for inclusion in an annual anthology. The published anthology was sent to all contributors before the end of the year. These results provided concrete evidence that a non-hierarchical voluntary community process based on relationship-building could be highly efficient, effective and enduring.

The ‘Special forever’ program was to have been complemented by a second large scale community environmental education-capacity building program called ‘Reading the Land’. It was designed to encourage all members of communities throughout the Murray–Darling Basin to actively participate in the transformation to a sustainable society. Initially this was to involve a ‘stocktake’ and celebration of the human and environmental assets of each region and then showcasing it to other Australians. It was proposed that the program would focus on the 19 Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) Regions in the Basin, which approximate bioregions, and would involve a close association with local government. Bioregions are areas with common geographic characteristics such as watersheds, soils, climate, native plants and animals, and common human cultural practices. ‘Reading the Land’ was designed to assist residents to relate to their bioregions.

During 1992-1996, in an attempt to regain professional status for members of the Communications Unit, and to gain legitimacy for large scale public environmental education, the Unit entered national and state environmental and communication awards. Seven prestigious awards were received (including Vision for Australia, Banksia, and Landcare) for the whole communication strategy; specific areas such as electronic media and educational publishing; and for specific programs such as ‘Special forever’, Video, and Adult Learning Circles. However, none of the traditional measures of program success — such as positive peer review, demonstrated effectiveness, positive community feedback, demonstrated initiative, innovation, productivity, or value-adding — appeared to be ‘visible’ to management.

The manifestation of these tensions, in the case of the role, scope and status of environmental education in the Murray–Darling Basin Initiative, is well expressed in the following quotation:

These problems pertain to the inbuilt contradictions of a social order which appears to be saying ‘Lord make us truly green — but not just yet’, and a situation where society simultaneously expects environmental education to nurture fundamental social change whilst effectively constraining both the critical aspects of environmental education and the overall education context within which it operates.
Sterling 1993: 73

Persistence in attempts to ‘nurture fundamental social change’ by the Communications Unit ultimately resulted in the expulsion of its members. In 1998, all five members of the Unit were forced to take involuntary redundancies as a ‘business decision’ (Blackmore pers comm 7/5/98) to make way for additional technical staff. I suggest that this action was largely a political statement. It sent a powerful message in a capitalist society — loss of career, family income, and to some extent identity — to deter any further perceived threats to the technocratic status quo, from sociocultural professions. It appears to support the prediction by Fien and Trainer (1993: 41) that ‘Strenuous resistance to the transition [to an ecologically sustainable society] is predictable as it constitutes a death sentence for the established world order’.

Fortunately, a rapid and coordinated political response from community supporters of ‘Special forever’, and the partnership with PETA, enabled that program to survive.


The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.
Capra 1997: 3

In April 1970, at the Australian Academy of Science conference on Education and the Environmental Crisis, Stephen Boyden argued that:

The suggestion that all our problems will be solved through further scientific research is not only foolish, but in fact dangerous…the environmental changes of our time have arisen out of the tremendous intensification of the interaction between cultural and natural processes. They can neither be considered as problems to be left to the natural scientists, nor as problems to be left to those concerned professionally with the phenomena of culture…all sections of the community have a role to play, certain key groups have, at the present time, a special responsibility.

This message is even more relevant today than it was 30 years ago because such painfully slow progress has been made in the development of the sociocultural aspects of sustainability. Woodhill and Roling (1998) suggest that the sociocultural and the biophysical aspects of ecologically sustainable development are like the two wings of a sustainability ‘eagle’ which has not been able to take off to date because it has only been flapping its technological ‘wing’ to address the biophysical symptoms. If the ‘eagle’ is not to continue to flap in circles on the ground, its sociocultural wing must be strengthened (through capacity building programs and resources) to match its technological wing.

My research and experience reveal that some of the greatest impediments to the achievement of sustainable resource use and sustainable communities in the Murray–Darling Basin are institutional rather than logistical:

… the scientific/technocratic/managerial paradigm … is not a neutral, detached, objective process but is highly political. Its politics are those of preservation of the status quo … of ‘dynamic stability in the face of change’.

Robottom and Hart 1993: 51

The Murray–Darling Basin Commission, like most bureaucracies, is locked into a mechanistic worldview but it has been given a task that cannot be achieved through an ‘industrial’ model and a technical knowledge base alone. However, since 1990 it has tended to deny the sociocultural aspects of sustainability. An informed and involved community appears generally to be seen by management bureaucracies as threat rather than an asset, despite 'government-community partnership' rhetoric:

The vast majority of thought about a sustainable society…has to do with hardware. I think it is time to ask about the software of sustainability as well, and thus about the qualities people will need to build and maintain a durable civilisation.

David Orr 1992

Sustainability is about investing in the future of our land and its people. The relative lack of investment in individual and community capacity building means that the residents of the Murray–Darling Basin are being prevented from even a ‘fighting chance’ of dealing with the ‘crisis of sustainability’ in their communities, despite their great potential to do so.


Bowen, J. 1994. ‘The Imperative for Environment Education’ in Bowen, J. (ed) Environment Education-Imperatives for the 21st Century, James Nicholas, Albert Park.

Boyden, S. 1970. ‘Environmental change: Perspectives and responsibilities. In Jeremy Evans and Stephen Boyden (eds) Education and the Environmental Crisis. Australian Academy of Sciences, Canberra: 9-22.

Capra, F. 1997. ‘The Web of Life’. Harper Collins, London.

Connolly, D. 1983. ‘River Murray Waters Amendment Bill - second reading’ in House of Representatives Hansard 24 August. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra: 151-156.

Curtis, A. 1995. Landcare in Australia: a critical review. Albury: Johnstone Centre of Parks, Recreation and Heritage, Report No. 33, Charles Sturt University.

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

Fien, J., and Trainer, T. 1993. ‘A Vision of Sustainability’ in Environmental Education: A Pathway to Sustainability? Deakin University, Geelong, PP. 24-42.

Hudson, W. 1965. Foreword, Conducting Officers’ Manual,Snowy Mountains Authority, Cooma, New South Wales.

Jacobi, R. 1983. ‘River Murray Waters Amendment Bill - second reading’ in House of Representatives Hansard 24 August. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra: 190-194.

Malcolm, S. 1992. Education for Ecologically Sustainable Development. Victorian Environmental Education Council, Occasional Paper 1.

Martin, P. 1998. ‘Democracy Matters’, Life Matters, ABC Radio National, 2 November.

Nancarrow, B.E., Casella, F., Syme, G. J., and Bishop, B. J. 1993. A Report on the Major Issues Arising from Discussions with the Regional Communities, Murray–Darling Basin Commission Irrigation Management Strategy Public Involvement Program Stage 2. Consultancy Report No. 93/22, Australian Research Centre for Water in Society, CSIRO, Canberra.

Orr, D. 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Post Modern World. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Plumwood, V. 1996. ‘Environmental Education, Liberatory Education and Place-Sensitive Narrative’ in Jickling, R. (ed) A Colloquium on Environment, Ethics, and Education, Yukon, Canada.

Robottom, I. 1992. ‘Towards inquiry-based professional development in environmental education’ in Robottom (ed) Environmental Education: Practice and Possibility. Deakin University, Geelong.

Robottom, I and Hart, P. 1993. ‘Research in Environmental Education-Engaging the Debate’. Deakin University, Geelong.

Sterling, S. 1993. ‘Environmental Education and Sustainability: A View from Holistic Ethics’ in Fien, J., Environmental Education: A Pathway to Sustainability? Deakin University, Geelong.

Woodhill, J., and Roling, N. 1998. ‘The second wing of the eagle: the human dimension in learning our way to more sustainable futures’. In Roling and Wagemakers (eds), Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture. Participatory learning and adaptive management in times of environmental uncertainty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 46-72.


Case study: 'Special Forever'— a rural capacity realisation program

Ideally, environmental education should involve students, teachers and community agencies in collaborative investigations of real environmental issues in their local environments.
Robottom and Hart 1993: 24

'Special forever' is another way of saying 'a quality sustainable future'. The 'Special forever' environmental education-literacy program involves children discussing, writing and producing artwork about what is environmentally and socially important to them. This takes place in primary school English classes throughout the Murray–Darling Basin. The work is shared with local communities, with other primary school children, and sometimes with regional and national audiences through a range of publications, and radio and television exposure. It is an effective and just way for children to contribute to the creation of a picture of the vast Murray–Darling Basin and to establish links and empathy with distant parts as well as with their local areas. The education process is based on participative learning and has a socially-critical orientation:

Critical pedagogy empowers students by drawing upon their own cultural resources as a basis for engaging in the development of new skills and interrogating existing knowledge claims. It helps them to interpret their everyday realities and facilitates the consideration of possible alternatives which are more humane, just and equitable.
Sultana 1989

'Special forever' commenced in 1993 as a partnership between the Murray–Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) and the Primary English Teaching Association (PETA) to broadly address the following:

  • the difficulty for individuals to perceive and relate to the vast Murray–Darling Basin;
  • the perceived need to help prepare rural primary school children, as possibly the most vulnerable members of Australian society to the impacts of resources degradation, for sustainable ways of living. (Developing 'survival' skills — critical thinking, holistic thinking, self-esteem, self-reliance but the ability to work as a team member, scientific and local knowledge to produce informed responses, and effective communication);
  • the apparent inadequacy in the traditional (‘logical’) use of science as the primary vehicle for environmental education. The need for the discussion of sociocultural as well as technical aspects of unsustainable resources use and unsustainable communities in rural Australia;
  • the perceived poor literacy standards as a major concern in rural areas and ultimately an impediment to the achievement of ecologically sustainable development (ESD);
  • apparent institutionalised intergenerational inequity; and
  • the apparent general lack of preparedness of individuals and communities in the MDB to deal with the 'crisis of sustainability, the fit between humanity and its habitat…the terms and conditions of human survival…'(Orr 1992).

Since that time, this voluntary program has involved more than 50% of all primary schools in the million square kilometre Murray–Darling Basin. It generally involves 30-38 000 children each year and was a key component in the Murray–Darling Basin Commission’s multi-faceted communication strategy designed to contribute to the achievement of environmental and sociocultural sustainability in the Murray–Darling Basin. It is the only remaining element of the generation-long environmental education — community capacity realisation strategy which was abandoned as a ‘business decision’ in 1998 (after only eight years) in order to provide additional technical staff for MDBC office activities. This program only survived because of community protest from throughout the Basin, vindicating one of the primary purposes of education in a democracy which is ‘to show individuals how they can function together in society’ (Saul 1997: 142).

‘Special forever’ places education into an ecological model which integrates personal experience/local knowledge and formal ‘school learning’. It establishes children as part of a learning community working towards a more sustainable future by helping to release their intellectual and emotional energy. It enables investigations of local environmental and social concerns. While guidelines, themes and other support are provided; the great strength of the program is its flexibility. Its implementation is left up to the imaginations and local knowledge of teachers as the experts in this area. The primary emphasis of the program is on the educational process (dialogue/ communication) rather than specific environmental knowledge or other prescribed content transfer (Robottom and Hart 1993: 70).

Celebrating diversity

The principle of diversity maintains that there is not necessarily just one answer, or one right way of doing things, and so encourages a range of responses.
Ife 1995: 46

The ability to accommodate and celebrate diversity is one of the great strengths of ‘Special forever’ as it encourages participation, enriches the appreciation of the Murray–Darling Basin and local assets, and assists with problem-solving. The tendency in our society to seek the right or best answer and then to impose it universally (Ife1995:47) largely excludes opportunities for discussion, interpretation and may stifle creativity.

Diversity is one of the main principles of ecology and sustainability. Diversity and flexibility enable ecosystems to survive disturbances and adapt to changing conditions (Capra 1997: 293). Broomfield (1997: 224) suggests that diversity gives communities ‘alternative ways to grow’ but ‘the price of diversity is periodic disagreement and contention’. ‘Special forever’ participants are encouraged to present their own experiences, values, local solutions and ways of doing things. The encouragement of initiative in communication and problem-solving was the reason for the establishment of the Black Cockatoo Award which has become the most coveted ‘Special forever’ award. Difference rather than uniformity is valued (Ife 1995:47).

The power of personal experience

Plumwood (1996: 81) suggests that the articulation of personal experience is a significant learning and emancipatory process and that ‘personal experience which is devalued in institutional and universalising models is crucially important in establishing ecologically-sensitive relationships to place’(1996: 83).

Children learn a lot about their own areas through involvement in ‘Special forever’. They also gain satisfaction from sharing their knowledge because it is valuable to others, and they enjoy hearing about activities and other parts of the region from children of their own age. The children are the ‘experts’ in this program (Shipway 1998). Similar sentiments were expressed during a television interview by Linda Marsh when commenting on a detailed ‘hazard-type’ board game produced by her son (tvED program, Open Training and Education Network, SBS, 23 October 1995). She explained that through the process of developing the game he had learned a lot about making a living from a grazing property north-west of Bourke in far western NSW. She and her husband had been amazed at the local knowledge that their son had retained. She also enjoyed seeing her son working closely with his father and gained satisfaction from the interest that the local community had shown in the project because it articulated their lifestyles.

A participatory action research approach to environmental education evolved as an integral part of the ‘Special forever’ program. It aims to produce knowledge and action that is directly useful to a group of people through research, education, and sociopolitical action. It also seeks to empower people to a deeper level ‘through the process of constructing and using their own knowledge’ (Reason 1994, in Denzin and Lincoln eds: 328).

Personal awareness and self-esteem are identified as essential to empowerment and participation in social action for the environment (Knapp and Goodman 1981 in Fien 1993: 48; Malone 1996: 103). Ison (1993: 98) also points out that it ‘is increasingly recognised that a form of metaphorical analysis can provide great insights into organisational culture and can be used to process change’.

The ‘Special forever’ project encourages cooperation and individual empowerment to assist students to deal with the ‘crisis of sustainability’. Sterling (1993: 73) supports this view with the suggestion that ‘whether a future marked by disaster or true sustainability and equity lies ahead, the need for self-directed people will be paramount’. The following statement from Sterling (1996: 200) about the characteristics of ‘education for sustainability’ could have been written to describe ‘Special forever’:

The emphasis is on capability and confidence-building, participation, ownership, empowerment and the generation of meaning … Participants’ perceptions, values and concerns are the starting point for any change … and people feel themselves to be the initiators and owners of such change. The process is inherently flexible and integrative. The role of the centre is facilitation … This approach is ‘education for sustainability’, or more radically perhaps ‘education as sustainability’.

Maintaining a profile for rural Australia - keeping the ‘song’ alive

... we would do well to remember the Aboriginal axiom that all land has a ‘song’ which is the story of the people in that land. If the song is lost that land becomes a barren waste without life and without meaning.
Forrest 1990: 26

To be ‘forgotten’ by being ‘out of sight and out of mind’ can be as great a disaster for the environment and communities as the high profile problems of salinity, blue-green algae or the invasion of carp in our rivers. It is also important that rural people are not excluded from the sustainability agenda by having it depoliticised and presented as a technical issue to be dealt with by government ‘experts’.

The skills and processes that children learn through their involvement in ‘Special forever’ give them a ‘voice’ and enable them to make authentic contributions to the sustainability of their communities and local environments. Their writing, artwork and communication skills, and an awareness of how to go about getting their voices heard, can help to overcome the disempowerment that many rural and regional communities currently feel. ‘Special forever’ writing and other activities not only keep the story of the Murray–Darling Basin alive; they are significantly adding to it and are helping to maintain a profile for the region.

The power of changed perspectives

Changes in perspective and priority, combined with relationship building in a socially critical education process, can release enormous emotional, cognitive and physical energy from children, teachers and other community members to assist them to better deal with the ‘crisis of sustainability’ and participate in the transformation to a sustainable society.

By changing perspectives and priorities to give students, teachers and community members new experiences, the ‘Special forever’ program is emancipatory and transformative. Changing the vehicle for the discussion of sustainability from science to English classes, for example, enabled it to be discussed as a sociocultural issue and to be considered holistically, rather than as a series of isolated technical problems. Significant emotional and values issues relating to quality of life, the degradation of natural and cultural resources, and the future can be explored. A broadening of the audience for children’s work from the classroom teacher to the local and Basin community, and sometimes the Australian public, has resulted in increased creativity (Cooper in Andrew and Eastburn 1997: 24). A focus on the Murray–Darling Basin introduced children to holistic or systemic thinking so that they are encouraged to consider the impacts of various actions on a whole system and to consider issues that occur on a scale which is larger than many countries. This is an important step towards thinking globally (Cooper 1997). The emphasis of ‘Special forever’ on ‘process’ and participation rather than set ‘content’ has facilitated dynamism and ownership. It has made environmental education locally relevant and enabled it to incorporate local knowledge as well as institutional knowledge.

‘Special forever’ has provided new experiences in many familiar areas. Children have written their own stories and produced their own images to create their own culture and history of the Murray–Darling Basin, to complement the work of professionals, and this has been legitimised through publication. An inclusive approach to learning exposed a huge amount of ‘hidden talent’ within students and community members. The landscape itself revealed interesting information after the children learned to ‘read’ it. Participative learning has tapped a rich resource of community members who can assist both students and teachers, while themselves benefiting from the experience. A shift from centrally-determined administrative priorities for writing, to regional sociocultural child-centred priorities, has resulted in non-interested writers suddenly becoming authors (Robinvale Consolidated School, Victoria, 1993).

‘Special forever’ has made ‘what children have to say’ the priority for writing. As suggested by Chris Harvey, the principal of Raukkan Aboriginal School in South Australia, it is not necessary to use ‘lots of adjectives’. ‘You can actually write something factual and something short and there is a chance that it will be published, or at least be considered for publication … there is not really any other avenue for kids to have their work published or be recognised for it’.

Inter-generational equity ‘insurance policy’

Inter-generational equity involves taking the welfare of future generations into account in current policy decisions; it ‘forces us to confront the future, and the future implications of present actions’ (Ife 1995: 86). However, Western society tends to discount possible future requirements in favour of immediate needs and goals. ‘Special forever’ could be said to be providing participants with an intergenerational equity insurance policy.

The program contributes to the development of a holistic view of the Murray–Darling Basin, encourages awareness of the significance of local natural and cultural resources, and facilitates the development of literacy skills. In addition, an exploration of personal values, confidence in the use of a variety of communication mediums, critical thinking skills and improved self esteem are equipping the children with abilities to make informed decisions and with ‘voices’ to express them. With these skills and knowledge, the children of the Murray–Darling Basin are in a position to protect their own futures through a vernacular version of ‘bearing witness’. Bearing witness is a form of peaceful protest traditionally associated with the Quaker religion which ‘… involves going to the scene of an objectional activity and registering opposition to it simply by one’s presence there’ (Brown and May 1989: 8, cited in Phillips 1995: 10). Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation and other environmental organisations ‘bear witness’ armed with cameras and tape recorders to send messages to the wider community about the need for change in environmental management (Phillips 1995: 10-11).

Learning to deal with the ‘crisis of sustainability’

The problem [sic] is not to teach skills in a galloping technology, but to teach students to think and to give them the tools of thought so that they can react to the myriad changes, including technological, that will inevitably face them over the next decades.
Saul 1997: 69

The experience of ‘Special forever’ is designed to help children to begin to contextualise situations and to look at alternative solutions to problems so that they are not forced into the disempowering position of having to react to agendas to which they have had no input; a situation which appears to frequently result in a destructive polarisation of communities. It helps them to appreciate diversity. The crisis of sustainability requires a cooperative approach and individual reliance. Some of the best preparation that children can have for the future is ‘space’ to explore their own values and their own places, and to have a community ‘audience’ to help build self-esteem to enable them to deal with situations individually or cooperatively.

Self-reliance and the ability to work as a team in a crisis were valued attributes of traditional Australian ‘bush’ culture. These attributes also contributed to the ANZAC legend about the ability of ordinary Australian soldiers to organise themselves in the absence of officers in France and Belgium during World War I. These same attributes are required to deal with the ‘crisis of sustainability’ and to achieve a sustainable future.

The coordinator for the Albury region of New South Wales suggests that through ‘Special forever’ the children learn to deal with ‘topics that they may not have accessed before, getting away from the strict Science or Social Studies type of things and into problem solving type activities, which are related particularly to the environment in their area, or across the Basin, or across the World’ (Miller 1997). Cooper (1997) also suggests that the conceptual framework established by ‘Special forever’ for studying the Murray–Darling Basin helps children to relate to world environmental issues:

… now whenever we are talking about [relevant] things we relate them to the Murray–Darling Basin. We can transfer that to the knowledge of the rest of the world if you like, in terms of our resources and sharing the resources — even in terms of world peace, thinking about others and the effects that our actions can have on other people.

The power of community relationship building for extensive management

The large scale of the Basin and the large number and diversity of participants involved in ‘Special forever’ necessitated the development of an administrative structure to facilitate a collegial working relationship to be developed and maintained ‘at a distance’. This involved the identification and development of a network of advocate-experts in communities throughout the region, ongoing consultation, and relationship building and maintenance through various communication mediums:

A network is by definition nonhierarchical. It is a web of connections among equals. What holds it together is not force, obligation, material incentive, or social contract, but rather shared values and the understanding that some tasks can be accomplished together that could never be accomplished separately.

One role of local networks is to help re-establish the sense of community and of relationship to place that has been largely lost since the Industrial Revolution.

Meadows, Meadows and Randers 1992:227

The management model of ‘Special forever’ demonstrates the efficiency of a network approach based on relationship building and ‘trust’ for a large scale (extensive) program; as opposed to the traditional (intensive) hierarchical industrial approach based on coercion. From the equivalent of one funded position (originally with input from five people) and a small budget for administration and publication costs (a total of around eight cents per student per week), each year ‘Special forever’ reaches, supports and directly involves literally hundreds of thousands of people throughout the million square kilometre Murray–Darling Basin.

The learning community established through the program is involved in quite complex participative activities to contribute to sustainability, enhance self esteem and build capacity. Twenty-five volunteer Regional Coordinators provide support to more than 1,200 volunteer teachers who frequently involve 35,000 students and tens of thousands of community members in the project over several weeks each year. The original twenty five ‘Special forever’ administrative regions were based, as much as State borders would allow, on approximate bio/cultural regions of the MDB. These were arrived at in consultation with National Museum of Australia staff.

In addition, each year volunteer professionals (journalists, writers, librarians, teachers, PETA members) from the communities involved in ‘Special forever’ evaluate tens of thousands of pieces of children’s work (every student who participates) at the school, region and Basin level. At this time, the children’s work is generally also exposed to a range of audiences (through school publications, displays, local newspapers, radio, television) in their communities and regions and some is selected for inclusion in an annual anthology of writing and artwork from throughout the Basin. An authentic ‘audience’ is a key element in the success of this program. The published anthology is sent to all contributors before the end of the year.

This process illustrates the capacity and energy within communities throughout the Murray–Darling Basin when a relevant strategy is put in place to release it. It demonstrates that programs involving volunteers can operate to tight timetables, get through a huge amount of work, and add enormous value ($1.3 m. pa); providing that there is effective relationship-building and maintenance, that the project is locally relevant (‘useful’), and it captures the imagination. The creative space given to individual teachers involved in ‘Special forever’ has frequently resulted in outcomes far greater and more creative than could have been anticipated or prescribed. These successes are shared by the ‘Special forever’ learning community which raises standards throughout the region.

‘Reading the Land’ — a bioregional management, learning and marketing program

The landscape is a repository of our culture, as well as a natural resource.
McCann 1992

The ‘Special forever’ program was to have been complemented by a second regional environmental learning — capacity realisation program called ‘Reading the Land’ as part of an integrated, generation-long program to work towards a sustainable Murray–Darling Basin. It was an asset-based regional visioning program designed to involve the majority of community members throughout the Murray–Darling Basin in activities that would enable them to actively participate in the transformation to a sustainable society. This was to involve community members in taking stock, celebrating, mapping, illustrating and harnessing the natural, cultural and human resources of their district through participatory learning activities. Artists and scientists were to be involved to assist in the process. Residents would then showcase/ market their region to other Australians and possibly to people in other parts of the world.

‘Reading the Land’ was designed to broadly address the following:

  • the apparent general lack of preparedness of individuals and communities in the MDB to deal with the ‘crisis of sustainability’(Orr 1992);
  • the request from MDB residents to become more ecologically-informed and therefore more effective partners in the government-community partnership on which the MDB Initiative is built;
  • the indication that localism (identity and appreciation of local assets) is a crucial compliment to globalism; and
  • the increasing calls from researchers for the need to view the sustainability issue from a sociocultural perspective in order to work towards ‘solutions’. The emphasis on technical ‘fixes’ to symptoms has been repeatedly demonstrated to be inadequate.

It was proposed that the program would focus on bioregions and would involve a close association with local government, industry, community/ service groups and non-government organisations, in addition to relevant state and commonwealth departments. Bioregions are areas with common geographic characteristics such as watersheds, soils, climate, native plants and animals, and common human cultural practices:

Bioregionalism can play an invaluable educational role in underscoring the importance of ecological relationships — asking where everything comes from and where everything goes, learning to become ‘respectful neighbours’ with local flora and fauna. This orientation is crucial to the critical evaluation of existing development decisions.
Eckersley 1992: 35

The combination of asset-based community capacity realisation and the use of bioregions as resources management and marketing units would help residents to understand the ‘metabolism’ (inputs/ outputs) of their regions, and especially of urban centres, to assist them to make more ecologically-informed decisions.

Like ‘Special forever’, the flexibility of the interpretation of ‘reading the landscape’ is its greatest strength. The many ways to ‘read the landscape’ would enable the project to be adopted by any community and ensure local relevance and local ownership. The opportunity for communities to ‘put their own stamp’ on the project would ensure varied and exciting outcomes.

‘Reading the Landscape’ has the potential to identify ‘common ground’ to facilitate reconciliation between people and the environment; between urban and rural dwellers; between scientific and local knowledge; between government and community; and between Western and Aboriginal cultures. Unfortunately, apparent technocratic insecurity at the time of its proposal prevented the implementation of this potentially highly constructive and emancipatory bioregional program.

Conclusion - preparing children for a finite and globally interconnected world

I think it is just a wonderful situation that you can link the Murray–Darling Basin with a literacy function … Here are two things that have come together superbly and I think that integration is something that has been an interesting experiment. We don’t do it enough in teaching. We tend to look at things in isolation and never bring two different spheres together.
Lisle, 1997

‘Special forever’ is a case study of the potential for actively involving large numbers of people over huge geographical areas in finding ways to work towards ESD in their own communities through the exploration of non-traditional perspectives. It is a living program with new approaches from teachers, children and community members welcomed and constantly flowing through and enriching it, like a stream with many tributaries. It involves children in the discovery of their local environments and resources, and how they fit into larger systems. It helps to address the dilemma of a centrally-developed curriculum not always being locally relevant (‘real’) in rural areas, which alienates and disadvantages many students. The program helps to address Fensham’s (1978:68) concern that the:

… central organisation and direction of curriculum tends very much to isolate school from community, to institutionalise ideas, and to inhibit the identification of education with the realities of local environmental situations.

‘Special forever’ reconnects school, community and the local environment, and prepares children to deal with the ‘crisis of sustainability’. It also provides a new perspective on the role of teachers. It is an educational process to help prepare children for life in the post-industrial, global information era. A recent report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (July 2000) identified ‘Special forever’ as a significant model to contribute to improved rural and remote education throughout Australia:

When we listen to someone’s story … it builds trust and leads to people saying more about their ideas and passions. Without conversation there is no trust; without trust there is no expression of passion; without this there is no change …
Stewart 1998: 25

Summary of Outcomes

  • Confirmation of the significance of middle childhood (7-12 years) as a key period for environmental learning. It supports findings from throughout the Western world which indicate that middle childhood is ‘a critical period in the development of the self and in the individual’s relationship to the natural world’ (Sobel 1993: 52).
  • Confirmation that primary schools identify or are at the centre of most communities, and therefore the strategic importance of involving them in programs which must achieve complete geographic coverage.
  • Confirmation of the inadequacy in the traditional (‘logical’) use of science as the main vehicle for environmental education. Due to its exclusive nature, science depoliticises issues and prevents the community dialogue and the presentation of the ‘big picture’ necessary to make informed decisions to successfully address the sustainability problem. People can generally only ‘react’ to a scientific approach, they cannot ‘respond’ to it by using their own knowledge base. However, the experience of ‘Special forever’ frequently generated a greater interest in science because the dialogic approach helped the students, teachers and community members to appreciate the place of science in their everyday lives.
  • Establishment of the significance of sharing personal experiences as an effective way to establish ecologically- sensitive relationships to place and to build/ realise the capacities of large numbers of people over a huge geographic area to deal with the ‘crisis of sustainability’ and contribute to a sustainable future.
  • The establishment of the potential contribution of the ‘Special forever’ program to intergenerational equity by providing children, the future custodians of the MDB, with the ability to ‘bear witness’ against actual or potential environmentally damaging activities. It is an ‘intergenerational insurance policy’ for future generations of Murray–Darling Basin residents.
  • Confirmation of the effectiveness of relationship-based education strategies consisting of networks of advocate–experts located within communities to reach and involve (release the energy and local knowledge of) a large, extensive and diverse audience.
  • Confirmation of the power of changed perspectives for solving institutional problems. The success of using primary school English classes as the main vehicle for environmental education.
  • Confirmation of the power of changed perspectives for solving logistical problems. By using an ecological rather than an industrial education model it was possible to:
    – fit environmental education into a crowded school curriculum by discussing environmental/sustainability issues in English classes;
    – involve busy teachers in ‘another’ voluntary activity by helping to solve some of their problems — by providing creative ‘space’, quality support, and an innovative, effective environmental-literacy program that children enjoyed;

    – identify and involve advocate-experts located within communities;
    – minimise out-of-community administration and maximise community control;
    – maximise value for money; and
    – establish a dynamic (living), inclusive and locally relevant program nurtured by input from participants (students, teachers and community members), ‘outside’experts, and the rich but often overlooked resources of every community.

  • Confirmation of the power of changed perspectives to improve learning. By making learning inclusive and locally relevant, sharing personal experiences with authentic audiences, and placing what children have to say before technical perfection, it is possible to:

    – improve literacy participation and standards;
    – achieve greater appreciation of local natural, cultural and human resources;
    – achieve greater appreciation of diversity;
    – raise self-esteem;
    – encourage critical thinking and creativity;
    – contribute to self-awareness — help individuals to find their place in society and the world.

  • Confirmation of the effectiveness of participative learning processes — the importance of using the ‘intelligence of the people who make up society’ (Saul 1999) — for the establishment of ecologically-sensitive relationships to place, and for community capacity realisation on a large scale.
  • Evidence of improved morale by teachers, students and community members through the emancipatory experience of involvement in ‘Special forever’.
  • Confirmation that sustainability is ultimately a sociocultural issue — ‘should this area [MDB] be permitted to deteriorate any further, every Australian will suffer because of the severe impact on our quality of life’ (Connolly 1983) — but there is an overwhelming imbalance of resources in favour of the technical and administrative aspects in the Murray–Darling Basin Initiative. The elevation of the sustainability issue from the technical domain into the area of power, culture and social relationships will enable it to be discussed and critiqued to find solutions.


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