Beyond stewardship – a troubled text

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

I've been reading (with some difficulty) Beyond stewardship: common world pedagogies for the Anthropocene by Affrica Taylor (Faculty of Education, Science, Technology and Mathematics, University of Canberra) who "infuses her geographies of childhood, common world pedagogies, and multispecies ethnographic research with feminist, queer and decolonising environmental humanities perspectives". (sic)

Here's the Abstract:

Interdisciplinary Anthropocene debates are prompting calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about what it means to be human and about our place and agency in the world. Within environmental education, sustainability remains centre stage and oddly disconnected from these Anthropocene debates. Framed by humanist principles, most sustainability education promotes humans as the primary change agents and environmental stewards. Although well-meaning, stewardship pedagogies do not provide the paradigm shift that is needed to respond to the implications of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene-attuned ‘common worlds’ pedagogies move beyond the limits of humanist stewardship framings. Based upon a more-than-human relational ontology, common world pedagogies reposition childhood and learning within inextricably entangled life-worlds, and seek to learn from what is already going on in these worlds. This article illustrates how a common worlds approach to learning ‘with’ nonhuman others rather than ‘about’ them and ‘on their behalf’ offers an alternative to stewardship pedagogies.

And here's the last paragraph:

Instead of seeking to become better humans by continuing to believe that we are destined to act (alone) on behalf of the world, the common worlds response to the Anthropocene is quite simply to keep working at ways of become more worldly through focusing upon our entangled relations with the more-than-human world. This is a much more modest response than the ultimately human-centric impulse to break away and ‘save’ the world. It is a collective or commoning response that refuses human exceptionalism. It is a low-key, ordinary, everyday kind of response that values and trusts the generative and recuperative powers of small and seemingly insignificant wordly relations infinitely more than it does the heroic tropes of human rescue and salvation narratives. These are the kinds of non-divisive relations that many young children already have with the world. They are full of small achievements.  We can learn with them.

These two extracts give you a reasonably clear flavour of what's of concern here, and there is undoubtedly something in this sort of stuff, given how troubled our relations are with other species.  However, it’s a pity that the main body of the jargon-riddled paper has been written in such a way as to obscure meaning.  It’s written in this way, of course, to ensure that fellow writers see Taylor as part of the enlightened 'post-' crowd.  It’s really just early 21st century capitalism at work in academia: creating new products; establishing new markets; advertising; seeking investment; overthrowing old products; creating wealth.

As a recovering academic, I can't afford to spend much time on this sort of stuff, but I'll give one example of the problem with what's in the paper.  Take this extract about children encountering kangaroos on campus (my emphasis):

"Clearly stimulated by their increasing familiarity and affection for the kangaroos and their close-up observations of these wild animals’ embodied modes of being, the children were increasingly curious about what it would be like to live in a kangaroo’s body, to listen attentively with large swiveling ears, to be tucked up like a joey in a furry pouch, to rest upright upon an enormous tail. They frequently expressed a sense of kinship with the joeys. On a regular basis the children spontaneously became kangaroos, simulating the kangaroo mannerisms and movements that they had observed so many times in their up-close, face-to-face meetings (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw 2016a). They were, in effect, performing the kind of learning with that proceeds from the unfolding of real-life, inter-subjective, inter-species ontological relations, and which is all about actively seeking the kinds of cross-species identifications and inter-subjective ‘becomings with’ that the divisive humanist learning project, with its structuring subject-object knowledge relations, cannot envision ..."

Well, they didn’t become kangaroos (spontaneously or otherwise).  They might have pretended to, but that’s another matter.  Incidentally, why does this sense of kinship never seems to extend to rats, cobras, lice, the ebola virus, or TB bacillus?

It's a tiresome piece, and if you want to read about such ideas, I'd say start with Being a Beast by Charles Foster (Profile Books).  Better still, perhaps, watch the first episode of Brass Eye, from 1979.  Then there are these recent books:

  • The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief and Compassion — Surprising Observations of a Hidden World  Peter Wohlleben
    Bodley Head, pp.281, £16.99
  • The Animals Among Us: The New Science of Anthropology  John Bradshaw
    Allen Lane, pp.352, £20
  • Being Salmon, Being Human: Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild  Martin Lee Mueller
    Chelsea Green, pp.384, £18.99

... which were recently reviewed by Mark Cocker in The Spectator.

We're really spoilt for choice; all the more reason not to bother with Affrica Taylor (2017): Beyond stewardship: common world pedagogies for the Anthropocene, Environmental Education Research, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2017.1325452

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response