USING THE LENS OF SUSTAINABILITY TO EXAMINE OUR PAST AND INFORM OUR FUTURE

Jillian Turner
BHP Teacher, New South Wales, Australia

jillian-turner-blog-postImage credits: Left, A San hunter with a cheetah in the Namib Desert © Martin Harvey/CORBIS. Middle, Rectangular fields clustered around a water well, on a bank of the Niger River, near Gao, Mali. © Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Corbis. Right, The Nelson Mandela
Bridge connects the Braamfontein and Newtown areas of Johannesburg, South Africa. © Blaine Harrington III/Corbis.

One of the new elements in the Australian Curriculum (a K-12 national curriculum for all schools in all states in Australia) is a focus on sustainability across all key learning areas. This did not at first seem like a natural fit for history. How was I going to incorporate this core concept into my programs in a genuine way? How was I going to avoid making token references to sustainability, throwing them in merely to “tick the box”? I think even the syllabus writers themselves encountered this. If you’re teaching the Stage 4 unit on Shogunate Japan, I’m sure you’ve noticed the curiously large emphasis on forestry and land use policies!

As I planned for the introduction of the Australian Curriculum and developed programs, this issue lingered in the back of my mind. I wanted any content on sustainability to be embedded in lessons and useful for developing historical thinking, not simply a side issue to discuss briefly, and then put aside.

My eventual solution came through teaching Big History. The idea at the core of Big History is that the history of the Universe can be told in one unfolding narrative in which thresholds lead to increasing complexity. This story begins with the first events of the Big Bang, but it covers the world today and the future. It is this overarching story that provides a natural and useful link to sustainability. As students discover the thresholds in the history of the Universe, they are naturally led to question changes that have affected our species and our planet, and consider what our future might hold.

Let me illustrate with an example. As students examine the appearance of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, they compare the lives of hunter-gatherer groups with those of the first farming communities and with their own lives today. They ponder the positive outcomes of farming for our species—such as increased food stability—but contrast this with the negative impact on biodiversity. This type of critical thinking and evaluation is crucial to ideas of sustainability and begins the discussion around balancing the needs of a planet that is supporting ever larger numbers of people, with the well-being of those people.

In the big narrative of Big History is an opportunity to have genuine and intellectually intriguing discussions about sustainable living and the factors that have led to the modern world. I realized that I could incorporate some of what I was doing with my Big History classes into my Australia Curriculum history classes. I used the overviews from each unit to build a narrative of human history. From this narrative I developed discussion topics that focused on evaluating the long-term impact of various historical events and eras. I also used content from the Big History website to give students accessible information on each discussion topic. My Stage 4 unit on the Spanish conquest of the Americas for example, incorporated a discussion of the Columbian Exchange. Students used excerpts from an article on the impact of the Columbian Exchange to evaluate the consequences for different nations and to examine the ongoing consequences for the modern world. They explored the rise in inequality in the world in this period, and then proposed solutions that could lead to a more equitable use of the world’s resources. They also examined the impact of the Columbian Exchange on the health of ecosystems and explored the interconnection between people and our environment. Students were able to see the complex relationship between the environment and historical events.

This “environmental history” is nothing new; it’s an approach to history that the Annales School was advocating in the early twentieth century. However, it is one form of history that students would benefit from a familiarity with, one that could lead to a deeper knowledge of our world and an interest in saving it!

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