What is the anthropocene exactly?

shadows on snow

When considering land-based learning in the early years in Ontario, it is important to consider the context we are working in. This includes acknowledgement of the land we are on, with reference to the history of colonization, and also the shifting ecological landscape of our planet. Many previous attempts to teach environmental education have missed the opportunity to engage with Indigenous knowledge, and have also created a generation of people who are either anxious or apathetic due to the doom and gloom approaches to disconnected teaching approaches about the degradation of our planet. I share this excerpt I wrote, taken from Partnering for Outdoor Play: A Case Study of Forest and Nature School Programming in the Context of Licensed Child Care in Ottawa, Ontario, (publication pending in Canadian Journal of Environmental Education later in 2019).

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The Earth is undergoing a period of rapid and irreversible change. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen theorizes that we have entered the “Anthropocene,” a new phase in the planet’s evolution created through human activities that “have fundamentally and permanently changed the planet’s biosphere” (as cited in Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015, p. 509). According to Crutzen, human activities have resulted in “the acidification of oceans, the depletion of the ozone layer, fundamental changes to the earth’s carbon, phosphorous, and nitrogen cycles, climate change and the rapid loss of biodiversity” (p. 509). These interlocking environmental crises provide strong evidence of a transition into the Anthropocene. Meanwhile, human societies, and our education systems as social microcosms, have in many ways grown apart from the planet that sustains us. This separation is evident across Western social systems, with child care as early-years education being no exception. Human-nature dichotomies make addressing the pressing ecological problems facing human existence that are bound up in the anthropocene more difficult, and we propose through this project that forest-inspired and forest-integrated early years education is one promising avenue for building human capacity for ecological problem-solving in the anthropocene.

Never before has the field of Early Childhood Education been so crucial, as we support ‘unbound emergence’ (Nxumalo et al., 2018) inspired by children, and guided by our deepening sense of the importance of connecting children with the ‘more-than-human’ (Abram, 1996) world upon which human survival depends. Forest and Nature School then, can play a critical role in the developing landscape of early childhood education in the anthropocene. This landscape can be more than a reactionary response to environmental crises. By reconfiguring mindsets and actions, and seizing this eventful naming moment of anthropocene as one of transformational opportunity (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015) that can be reimagined from a state of emergency toward an “energizing urgency” (Lakind & Adsit-Morris, 2018, p.32) which promises a more hopeful, inspiring way forward. This too, provides increased opportunities for children to build agency (Lakind & Adsit-Morris, 2018, p. 36), by imagining and creating their own future as co-collaborators in a dynamic relationship with the more-than-human, rather than burdened saviours for our damaged planet.

The precarious state of our planet demands immediate and radical transformation of educational systems, especially for young children living in North America (Nxumalo et al., 2018, p. 449). As Payne (2018, p. 125) notes, sustainability has come to be regarded critically “as little more than an increasingly hollow slogan in education” and therefore there is a need for “rewilding concepts into revitalized theory building and research development” (p. 126), a call which has been taken up by Nxumalo, Vintimilli, & Nelson (2018) and other members of the Common Worlds Research Collective (http://commonworlds.net), who advocate that by building on existing practices from emergent curriculum, educators can understand the child within their more-than-human surroundings, help them to nurture strong relationships, and teach them of their interconnectedness with all things so they can better understand the impacts of their actions on the human and more-than-human world.

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Excerpted from Niblett, Hiscott, Power, & McFarlane (Submitted).

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