Why ‘the environment’ can be a misleading myth

I see myself as an environmentalist. And have done so ever since my early teens – which was a long time ago. So why would I be writing a blog with such a title? On the face of things, perhaps it seems a bit contradictory – a little sacrilegious even – amongst fellow greenies.

I was prompted to write because of the Chief Inspector of Schools’ recent statement, on launching Ofsted’s Annual Report. Amanda Spielman worried there were efforts to ‘commandeer’ schools and the curriculum to cover worthy social issues, including environmental causes and tackling racism. Well, that view probably needs an additional blog response, but it’s what she said next that bothered me. Which was, ‘I think my message would be – don’t revise the curriculum in the context of a single issue or purpose’. Such as the environment, she meant.  On the face of it perhaps, this sounds a reasonable argument. But it arises from a basis of misunderstanding and misapprehension which is widely shared.

The problem is that word environment, or more precisely, the meaning we attach to it. It’s a helpful label for sure, and it carries a perception and conveys certain ideas which are widely recognised. So when the newscaster says, ‘over to our Environment Correspondent’ we have a reasonable idea of his/her territory.

But let’s dip a little further. Here’s a question: where do you think ‘the environment’ starts. At the end of your fingertips maybe, or above your head? Or outside your front door? Or where the urban area meets the country?

See the problem…? Then what about your family, or friend, partner, colleague – they are part of your environment, clearly, but so also you are part of theirs.  So if on reflection, the environment seems to be everywhere, then it raises the question, ‘what isn’t the environment?’ The everyday answer might be that it’s the indoors, or perhaps the town or city. But that’s an unsatisfactory position, because they are clearly environments too. And yet, commonly ‘the environment’ is perceived as being an ‘externality’. Crucially, and disastrously, this misapprehension has been a guiding assumption in conventional economics for decades. So, this calls for some urgent re-thinking, and re-perception. In fact, such re-thinking is not new.

Kenneth Boulding was an American economist who developed the metaphor of ‘Spaceship Earth’ and was one of the founders of ecological economics.  In one of his books  he stated:

We must look at the world as a whole…as a total system of interacting parts. There is no such thing as an ‘environment’ if by this we mean a surrounding system that is independent of what goes on inside it (1978, p.31).

That was written more than forty years ago, but this one statement totally flips our common understanding of environment, and the disconnected sense of reality that it perpetuates. Why? Because Boulding’s perspective puts paid to the idea we are or can be in any sense separate from the biosphere. We are, to use his term, ‘inside it’. The trouble is, it is customary almost to think of ourselves as separate from the environment, so for example we think and talk of ‘people and nature’, and ‘economy and ecology’ as if they were unrelated.  

At a deep level of our psyche, this sense of separateness and lack of identification with the Other can lead to feelings of alienation, or worse, allows us to exploit and misuse the natural world. Nature is then easily regarded as a resource primarily, and ‘nice to have’ secondarily –rather than as the very foundation of all life.  So ‘people versus nature’ and ‘economy versus ecology’ seem plausible notions in debate.  But in his classic 1973 book ‘Small is Beautiful’, the radical economist E.F. Schumacher wrote: ‘Modern man talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.’

Nearly fifty years later, with unprecedented fires, storms, floods, loss of species – and now a devastating global pandemic – Schumacher’s words seem particularly prescient. One feels he would feel sadly proven correct, if he turned up now in a time machine.

So this is a major problem of language and perception. These two aspects of meaning-making are closely related. Is there a better description of the complex and intertwined reality of human and natural systems? Nearly forty years ago, the educator and systems thinker Donella Meadows (1982, p.101) made a brave attempt with the following:

The world is a complex, interconnected, finite, ecological-social-psychological-economic system.

Full marks for accuracy! But really problematic otherwise – it’s not exactly a handy label for widespread use. Alternatively, sustainability scientists have for some years been employing the terminology ‘socio-ecological systems’ – whereby people, communities, economies, societies, cultures are viewed as embedded parts of the biosphere: they both shape it and are shaped by it. The economy is a subsystem of society, which in turn is a subsystem of the biosphere. So therefore, the health and functioning of the biosphere is a precondition of human flourishing from local to global scales. This is incontrovertible, as is becoming ever more evident.

This holistic framing – which views humanity as unavoidably integrated within the larger biosphere system – helps us go beyond the narrow perspective of the human-nature dualism that has dangerously skewed our understanding and consciousness for so many years. As I have argued (Sterling 2010), ‘we are not on the Earth, we are in the Earth, we are inextricably actors in the Earth’s systems and flows, constantly affecting and being affected by the whole thing, natural and human, in dynamic relation.’  There are echoes here of calls to shift our consciousness and thinking from anthropocentrism and egocentrism towards ecological intelligence and ecocentrism – which is the concern of such movements as ecopsychology.

Encouragingly (if a little perversely) the knot of ‘wicked problems’ now affecting the world is giving rise to a changed sense of ourselves as embedded participants in the drama of our times that is now playing out. Something seems to be shifting. No longer separate bystanders, there is a growing sense of our grave responsibility for the future, and an awareness that all actions have systemic effects or consequences—from minuscule to massive, from micro-second to long term. And that ‘business as usual’ is no longer a viable option. This realisation is central to what may be termed a participatory or ecological worldview and I have long argued that this sense of ourselves and of our planet is essential to securing a liveable future.  The urgent need for such awakening has been underlined by such news as microplastics being found both in the deepest ocean trenches and on Mt. Everest, and the very recent report that human-made materials now, in 2020, outweigh the entire living biomass of the Earth.

Such evidence – and no doubt Covid, and the burgeoning climate crisis – appears to be accelerating new thinking and interest in the green economy and innovation across many aspects of human activity which acknowledges meeting human needs within environmental limits and planetary boundaries as the new ‘bottom line’, although there is a very long way to go.

But this still leaves us with the problem and connotations of the world ‘environment’.  We will, of course, continue to use it – but this is a plea to be aware of its limitations.  Perhaps we should think more of the ecosphere and technosphereas the two fundamental systems that interact and intertwine on Earth – a view put forward by the late Barry Commoner whose ‘Four Laws of Ecology’ in his  book ‘The Closing Circle’ (1971) were an early influence on my own thinking.

So, I’m afraid the Chief Inspector of Schools is just wrong. ‘The environment’ is not the environment as commonly understood – a separate ‘something to do with nature’ thing. Understood properly, it’s much more than that. The word underplays and belies the profoundly intertwined reality – and fate – of humanity, fauna and flora and natural systems, now under threat as never before in human history. Understood this way, ‘environment’ is not a ‘single issue’ but an essential window on the critical state of society and the planet, and a door to new, holistic and regenerative ways of thinking, being, and educating that give us some hope of securing the future. This way, we are all ‘environmentalists’ and indeed environmental educators – or should be.

Teaching activity:

What’s in a name?

Here’s a practical activity that ties in with theme of the blog above.

In 2005, I led a project to introduce systems thinking (or relational thinking) to both students and their teachers. It was called Linking Thinking – new perspectives on thinking and learning for sustainability, and it was commissioned and published by WWF Scotland. It was well received, and the whole resource can still be freely downloaded here. (Or alternatively, I have limited CD-Rom copies available for P&P only – message me at hello@sustainableeducation.co.uk).

One of the activities is below. It illustrates how most ‘environmental issues’ are multi-faceted, and can only be understood through multiple perspectives. It works very well with both secondary school and university students.

Why do this

We all use language to communicate. Labels and descriptors are indispensable to communication, but sometimes they can be a barrier – we sometimes stop with the label rather than really thinking about the thing it describes.

The systems thinker Gregory Bateson pointed out that we can often confuse ‘the map’ with the ‘the territory’; that is, give more attention to our abstractions than the phenomena they represent. This activity helps demonstrate this point, and encourages students to think more broadly about an issue and about the terms that we might use to describe it. It can be adapted quite simply to the age group.


Unit 1, Part A, particularly section 1.1, and Unit 2, Part A, particularly section 2.2.


To generate thinking about the limits of terms we might use to describe an issue, and about the complex world our use of language can sometimes obscure.


None – or make cards each with one descriptor name on, if you wish (see list below).


The students are asked to name an environmental issue (or if you prefer, it could be a ‘social’ or any other kind of issue). (Don’t stipulate whether this should be at local, national or global level.) Take whatever they come up with – species loss, global warming, water pollution, whatever. Write this topic down in large letters on a piece of paper or card and place on a chair, or on the floor, or flipchart/smartboard.

Divide the group into a number of subgroups depending on the number of descriptors you want to use. For best effect, arrange the groups around the chair in a semi-circle, or circle, so that each subgroup physically represents a different perspective on the issue.

Here are some descriptors, (you might want to delete from or add to this list, or simplify for the age group):

Economic, social, ethical, political, historical, scientific, technological, aesthetic, health, human rights, non-human rights, spiritual, quality of life, intergenerational.

Say to the group:

‘You have defined an environmental issue. But is it only an environmental issue? In this activity, I want you to explore it by thinking about it in different terms too.’

Give each subgroup one descriptor. They are asked to think how the descriptor applies to the chosen topic. This might take five to ten minutes, including discussion within the subgroup.

Each subgroup then speaks to the whole group, using this wording:

‘…(name of issue) is an (name of descriptor e.g. ‘economic’) issue because (they need to explain here)…

While they speak, you can if you wish, construct a spider diagram on the board to illustrate main points.

When each subgroup has had a turn, then ask the whole group: ‘what sort of issue is this?’ It is likely to be seen as having many dimensions.

Ask the group: ‘do we miss some of these dimensions if we just think of it as an ‘environmental’ issue’? ‘Is there such a thing as a purely environmental issue?’

Similarly, do we miss other dimensions when we say something is a ‘health’ issue, an ‘economic’ issue or whatever?

Discussion and debriefing

Some descriptors will apply more strongly than others, but ask students to think of connections with the topic even when there seems to be no link, or a weak link.

This activity ties in with the story of the five blind men and the elephant, where each had a ‘true’ description, but none had the whole story. Use this story with the group to illustrate the point and use as a basis for further discussion.


The words we use influence how we see the world. What is an ‘environmental issue’? This exercise should help the group realise that the world is often far messier or complex than our labels and ‘thought boxes’ allow.

Not only do we separate out a set of problems called ‘environmental’ which somehow are seen separately from ‘political’ and ‘economic’ problems, but we then separate out the environmental problems from each other: that one’s ‘climatic warming’, that one’s ‘energy conservation’, that one’s ‘air pollution’, that one’s ‘transport’ etc.

You can relate this to the discussion in Unit 1 about the difference between ‘box-thinking’ and Linkingthinking.


A variation is to use discipline names rather than descriptors such as ‘geographical’, ‘scientific’, ‘historical’, ‘sociological’ etc. Connections between the answers that each subgroup supplies can also be a source of further discussion.

Source: Stephen Sterling, et al, (2005) Linking Thinking – new perspectives on thinking and learning for sustainability, WWF Scotland.