The miller's tale – I998

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As referenced earlier, 14 years ago, and again the other day, I had a conversation with a miller in the small caucasus mountains in Georgia that was more than merely thought-provoking.  I wrote it up as part of my field report for the evaluation of WWF's global education work that John Fien directed.   Here's what Stephen Gough and I wrote about it in our 2003 book: Sustainable Development and Learning: framing the issues.

'The Miller’s Tale’, which is a reflection by one of the WWF evaluation team on a field visit to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park in Georgia in October 1998, drawing additionally on ideas from Lusigi (1994).  The thinking behind the challenging questions raised in this extract about the purposes of education in conservation and sustainable development has been, and continues to be productive for the organisation and its work.  It is consistent with the implications of ... distinguish[ing] information from communication and mediation as approaches to learning, and sets them in a context of influential external factors.  It is also consistent with ... the notion of environmental meta-learning across institutions, practices and literacies.

The Miller’s Tale:  Reflections on the miller, his two cows and the distant pasture: false consciousness, or

competing rationalities,and the ends of sustainable development education.

In the context of the development of the new national park in Borjomi it is clear that in many people’s minds the purpose of (environmental) education associated with this programme is to persuade the recipients of the educational intervention (villagers, farmers, herders) that the authority’s plan to implement the national park is rational and therefore the only sensible possible development.  The proponents of this case (teachers, NGO officials, politicians, bureaucrats) believe in the rationality of the national park programme – even though it means that village people in certain areas will no longer have the possibility of cutting and/or gathering wood, or grazing their cattle in traditional areas.  The supporters of this argument believe this because of the higher conservation goal (a ‘natural’ forest containing newly regenerated land) and its contribution to maintaining biodiversity across the Caucasus.  Taxed with the claims of the traditional users, they argue these higher goals and point to alternatives which have been built into the plan (in this case grazing which is at some inconvenient distance from the traditional areas).  They believe in the rationality of their case and see education, or perhaps more accurately, information, as the means of either persuading (where successful) or justifying (where unsuccessful) this higher conservation goal.  These people are (to various degrees) educated, eloquent, confident, literate – sets of status which bolster their conviction about the plan (and park’s) rationality.  They probably also believe that theirs is, and can be, the only possible rationality – especially since it is shared by so many other people in powerful and influential positions.  The argument of the villagers (who are about to be dispossessed of traditional access and benefits) must seem like an aberration, a special pleading, a disposition which is only possible because of ignorance of the facts and of the value of the wider goal.

However, from the villagers’ perspective, one might surmise that their own case is just as rational.  Here are traditional rights, enjoyed by generations, which survived the rigours and arbitrariness of collectivisation, which emerged intact into a more democratic future, which are now to be taken away or abridged at any rate by that newly democratic state, aided by the West’s most prestigious NGOs and richer governments – and for what: the promise of something in the future and a rather vague conservation ideal (sustainable development).  So, when the local miller asks ‘why can’t this huge national park cope with my two cows?’ he doesn’t get an answer because it has been decided that the question need not be taken seriously; rather, the question is to be argued away by a process of re-education which, if successful, will resolve the problem; if unsuccessful, it will at least explain the subsequent exercise of state power.

The point here is that it is patronising not to see the Miller’s question and the disposition from which it stems as one which in his terms, on his ground, in his time, is quite as rational as the other.

Perhaps there needs to be two kinds of sustainable development education: one form directed at addressing the conservation issues; one form focused at the power groups who sponsor the first.  The aim of these two, complementary approaches might be to seek compromise, to find plausible alternatives, to allow everyone to ‘win’.  The NGOs have a vital role in this.  Their unique position can be used to broker a solution, rather than being part of imposing one.  Thus the end of environmental education needs to lead to compromise and alternative paths, not coercion to a superior point of view.  The error, perhaps, from this perspective, which the powerful groups make is to believe that their own form of rationality lies dormant, untapped, unrealised, within the other – lying masked by feelings, thoughts, passions and convictions which are to be overcome, and that the role of education is to help those individuals see the error of their ways and release them from their false view of the problems and hence the world.  And if education fails in this task, well then, compulsion in the name of the higher rationality, is its own form of schooling.


Research report citation: WWF  (1999b)  Education & Conservation: an evaluation of the contributions of education programmes to conservation within the WWF Network [Reference Volume to the Final Report]. Gland & Washington: WWF International & WWF-US p. 40

Lusigi W. (1994), Socioeconomic and ecological prospects for multiple use of protected areas in Africa, in: M. Munasinghe and J. A. McNeely (eds.), Protected Area Economics and Policy: linking conservation and sustainable development, Washington DC, World Bank/IUCN. Ellis, F. (1993), Peasant Economics: Farm Households and Agrarian Development, second edition, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

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