jump to navigation

A Geography of Hope. August 11, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Social Ecology.
Tags: , , ,

Dr Carol Birrell

 A few weeks ago when I was picking up my grandson from his pre-school, he was keen to show me their latest display on a large noticeboard in the centre of the indoor classroom. On it were posted pictures of extinct or near-extinct species of animals with accompanying statements listing surviving numbers and original numbers. It was enough to depress me in an instant! However, what dominated my thoughts was the impact on these young children of such devastating information. I had to ask myself, how do they manage such information, if it is barely possible for me as a mature adult to manage it?

Educator David Sobel has a solid critique of education that may do more harm than good:

 Lurking underneath ‘environmentally correct’ curricula is the assumption that if children see the horrible things that are happening, then they too will be motivated to make a difference. But those images can have an insidious, nightmarish effect on young children whose sense of time, place and self are still forming… what’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it and feel comfortable in it, before being asked to heal its wounds[1].

 In this contemporary world of impending planetary disaster, of economic and political collapse, of rampant fears around health, disease, invasion and war, to list just a few, we are immersed, in fact, in a culture of ‘doom and gloom’. No person is immune to it.

  I came across an expression in relation to this, but in fact its antithesis, that resonated deeply and that I wish to explore further, called ‘A Geography of Hope’. Wallace Stegner, an American author, coined the expression to address the value of ‘hope’ as an idea as well as a place.[2]

 I initially trained as a Geographer and taught this subject in high schools and primary schools for over 20 years. However, I am not sure of the shape of A Geography of Hope, of its look or feel, but I know it is something I need, both as a teacher and more generally, in my life. In the face of this powerful statement, I wish to explore it as an antidote to the pervasive negativity that infects all of us, our students included. And I want to ask the question,

 ‘How do we cultivate A Geography of Hope in our classrooms?’

 I believe this is crucial in our education systems in this moment of time. It demands a shift from negativity, of despair and disempowerment, to a vision of hope that can be owned and embodied in our classes. It is not a positioning that is trying to avoid the truth, to disguise reality under some sort of ‘Pollyanna’ ruse. It may be seen as essential to our mental/physical/emotional/spiritual health and hence to our learning and pedagogical practices.

 David Orr gives us some pointers here:

  ‘The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.’[3]

Take one example of what I would incorporate under the notion of A Geography of Hope: that of the fostering and understanding of beauty in our lives. How could we bring ‘beauty’ more into our classrooms? Of course, we could have more living plants, creatures, art works, images of beautiful natural scenes, poetry, music, planted in the everyday lives of our students (Alas! Far removed from university classrooms!!). It may also reside in our own beings, as a geographic location with its points of longitude and latitude clearly demarcated. If I can hold a map of beauty in my being, in the world, in others, in plants and animals, in the not-so beautiful, and hold that as a central fulcrum in my classes, then it has a tangible presence and can exert influence. It is the ‘still point of the turning world’ in T.S. Eliot’s poem from which waves continue to move outwards[4]. Beauty gives us hope.  

Some recent research in Finland inspired me. People were encouraged to write letters to friends about beauty in their everyday lives- this took place in a small Arctic village over one year. The researcher states:

 ‘Beauty, in these letters, became as if a verb: a continuous, open-ended process of articulating the ways in which one is interwoven with and conditioned by one’s surrounding environment. Articulating beauty in everyday life was proven a practice that sustains sensory attentiveness, openness and imaginative interest towards the material world [5].

Imagine if that kindy noticeboard took beauty as its environmental theme!

 My grandson Sam stops me to take in a particularly stunning sunset, a softly rounded smooth rock, a mosquito on his arm, a strange word that tickles his fancy. He continues to cultivate in me, this notion of beauty and through it, unmistakably, a notion of hope.

 When I begin to contemplate the contours of A Geography of Hope, I am thinking about love, joy, awe, friendship and beauty. I want a classroom brimming with these! Is it possible? I can only hope!   


[1] Sobel, D. (1996) Beyond Ecophobia, The Orion Society, Great Barrington, MA

2 Stegner, W. http://www.angelfire.com/journal/worldtour99/hope.html accessed 5/8/13

3Orr, D (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, USA.

4 Elliott, T.S. Four Quartets http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html accessed 8/8/13

5 Rautio, P. (2013)  Children who carry stones in their pockets. Children’s Geographies, DOI:10.1080/14733285.2013.812278

Dr Carol Birrell in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney


1. Ian Boyle - August 12, 2013

Dr Birrell,

In answer to the question you posted in your essay:
How could we bring ‘beauty’ more into our classrooms?

I thought I could offer to come and give a talk to your class if time permits…. 🙂

If that does not fit your definition of beauty, the following hopefully should.

One of my favourite activities that I have been conducting with my students recently is one of Martin Seligman’s positive psychology exercises titled “3 blessings”. At the end of class, or before bed one has to reflect on their day and share 3 things that they need to be thankful for. Instead of focusing on the doom and gloom you discussed, it requires students to look for the things that make them thrive!

Nice piece, I enjoyed reading it.

Ian Boyle

tonialeannegray - August 12, 2013

Hi Ian —

What a great idea!

Thanks for sharing.


2. Jorge Knijnik - August 12, 2013

Carol, your article reminds me of Paulo Freire, one of the greatest “pedagogues of hope”, who once said “Without a vision for tomorrow, hope is impossible” – great post, indeed!

3. Bill Pigott - August 13, 2013

Well said and well done: Another dimension of this issue is the attitude that childrens’ heads are empty, when in fact they are full of things that teachers and other adults either do not understand or do not bother to find out about. I think a key aspect to the examples given and a key aspect of the value of the exposure to nature is the process of pausing to listen, and an interaction which enables the young person to articulate what they hear and see. I believe this would give them more opportunities to know the place they are in, more time inhabiting the present moment. In other words, more pauses, more listening, more opportunities to feel the beauty, the kindness and the love, so that they become real and become the verbs that they are, verbs that inform our lives.

Pausing to listen is one paste. Another is pausing to hear and be heard. Yet another comes from one of my sons, David. Working as an instructor for Outward Bound Canada, he was canoeing on a remote lake in Northern Ontario and his guide, who was a First Nations man, told him that “Your soul only travels as fast as a paddled canoe, so if you travel faster than that, you have to pause to let your soul catch up….”


4. Bill Pigott - August 13, 2013

‘typo’ at beginning of last para of my response: First sentence should say “Pausing to listen is one pause.”

5. Emeritus Professor Stuart B Hill - August 15, 2013

Great post; thank you Carol. See also ecophilosopher Joanna Macy’s website and recent (2012) book with Chris Johnston (he’s a UK medical doctor, not our Chris!) ‘Active Hope’ (www.activehope.info/joanna-macy.html; also: http://www.joannamacy.net). It is published in Australia by Finch Publishing (http://www.finch.com.au/home; set up by our past Social Ecology graduate Rex Finch). Macy was the one to first alert us most comprehensively to the dangerous effects of such negative information and images in her 1983 book ‘Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age’. You might also be interested to read the below essay that I wrote in 2003!

Paradoxical Hope for the Future

What a paradoxical world it is that we journey in together, learning in unexpected ways our next steps into the always unknown future. Sometimes along comes a teacher or opportunity to learn that has the opposite effect of any that were intended. I remember this happening in school when I occasionally had teachers who were so uninformed, narrow-minded, in denial, disembodied and adapted to their distressed states and exhibiting so many coping mechanisms and compensatory behaviors that the ‘we’ had no choice but to take charge of our own learning. Most of these teachers were obsessed with control and power over, and they tended to construct naively simple views of the world, of problems and of the solutions that were called for. I suspected that such constructions masked these teachers’ deep fears and inability to engage with the highly integrated and evolving complexities of personal, local and global processes. My friends and I quickly realized that in the absence of clear thinking and modeling of wisdom we had no choice but to develop our own abilities by supporting one another in making sense of our separate and shared life journeys, and in constructing our preferred futures.

Bush, Blair and Howard [and now most of our current political leaders] are currently providing us with such an opportunity. For most of us it is not difficult to recognize the presence of their underlying fears, shallow analysis and naïve, shortsighted solutions. What is hopeful is that such failures in leadership are paradoxically liberating and stimulating our own deep awareness of our oneness as a species, our social nature, and our capacity to respect and love others despite our differences. We are also deepening our understanding of the complex relationships between the numerous factors that are always involved in any process or situation — from our personal beliefs and lifestyles to the global economic and geopolitical structures and processes that influence all of our lives. This deeper understanding is increasingly becoming evident in cartoons, emails, the print and audio-visual media, and in speeches and conversations at ‘protest’ rallies and other social gatherings. All of this is helping to liberate more imaginative thinking and creativity, from which more appropriate pathways and actions may emerge. On a global scale, what we are involved in is nothing less than the psychosocial evolution of our own species –as we struggle to let go of imposing our agendas on those of others (the great homogenization of humanity) and start supporting the unique agendas of one another. As Allison Stallibrass profoundly observed by selecting “Being Me and Also Us” (1989, Scottish Academic Press) as the title for her important book documenting one of the few large-scale, long-term experiments of humans actually doing this, what emerges from such personal support is not competitive individualism, but collaborative relationships and deep caring.

Consistent with this perception is the increasing disillusion with the main political parties, and the growing influence of the minor parties and engagement with local political processes and responsibilities. We are, indeed, an amazing species, living together with millions of other amazing species in an amazing world. Remembering this amazingness may be the first step in constructing shared journeys beyond wars, greed, disconnection and the distresses that dog most of our lives, and nudge us towards peace, a sense of enough, deep connection, and the spontaneity of loving life in its fullness from moment to moment. Thank you George, Tony and John for helping us in this learning adventure!

Emeritus Professor Stuart B. Hill was Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney (s.hill@uws.edu.au) – 9 Feb. 2003.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: