Get out often – the importance of being in the environment, a paper given to a VOEA conference

Get out often –  the importance of being in the environment

Common Ground – a conference of the Camping Association of Victoria and the
Victorian Outdoor Education Association


The environmental crises we now face stem fundamentally, I argue, from the way we perceive the environment. We act individually rather than collectively, we are not at ease in the outdoors and we look for simplistic responses. Environmental education provides a means whereby we can change our perceptions of the environment and start to work towards a new understanding of our relationships with the environment.


I plan to cover a number of topics, tell a few stories and raise a few issues with you this afternoon. I do this from the perspective of an environmental educator (I’ll expand upon this later) rather than an outdoor educator, and though I have taught outdoors, I’m sure that you will consider that while that may be a necessary, it is not a sufficient, condition for me to call myself an outdoor educator. There is a continuum here that is worth exploring, and I will turn to that later also.

I want to argue that we must take our students, the next generation, outdoors often, and we must be particularly thoughtful about what we all do when we are out there. Non-empathetic experiences in the outdoors, taking them out but allowing them to slash and burn, can defeat the common purposes which we outdoor and environment educators have for our work.

What does the environment mean to us?

So lets start with a bit about ourselves What has led us into the work that we are now doing? Why aren’t we panel-beaters or medical researchers, growing olives or in advertising? Of all the jobs around, why are we in outdoor education? Think back to our childhoods – any clues there? Any family holidays, camping trips perhaps, that live in our memories? What outdoor experiences led us on to life’s path?

And how important is the outdoors to us? Close your eyes and let your mind wander – to your favourite place, where you most like to go, where your mind goes to relive pleasant times or where you are looking forward to going.

Where is your place – is it in a tall silent forest, a broad alpine plateau, a deserted and tranquil cove? Or is it a smart beachside restaurant down in St Kilda, mixing with the beautiful people in Chapel Street, or perhaps a smoky mosh pit with a thrash band in a Fitzroy pub? I’ll wager it in the first group rather than the second. The natural environment is extremely important to us, for more than the instrumental reasons of resource extraction. The natural environment has a psychological, even spiritual, appeal. Here we are, at the just before dawn on the third millenium, and we need our natural environments more than ever.

In fact, in an article in The Age recently, Arthur Boyd was quoted as follows:

“If I was whisked away .. I think I could put up with anything, except not seeing the Australian landscape. It would be torture to have cut it off.”

Now try to imagine what the natural environment will be like at the brink of the fourth millenium. What will Australia’s population be, compared with the 19 million people we have now? Will there be a natural environment, as distinct from altered or built environments? Melbourne now stretches from Sunbury, 35 km to the northwest to Frankston, 40 km to the south east, from Lilydale 35 km to the northeast to Werribee, 35 km to the south west. There’s not much natural environment there. Consider the major conurbations of the world, and their current growth rates. If we wish to have natural environments for our descendants, clearly citizens need to behave differently than they are doing now.

Its not as though environmental problems arise through ignorance. Political and opinion polling shows that concern for the environment is widespread, yet these problems, whether unsustainable timber-harvesting, land-clearing, loss of biodiversity, global warming, land salinisation, etc. etc. ad nauseum and almost infintum, increase.

I have three different analyses for this – each one a different way of looking at much the same issue, for, as my third analysis suggests, this is what we must start doing. And so I go to the first way of looking at why we are in the environmental cesspit, so to speak.

Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons

An American ecologist, Garret Hardin, in his celebrated paper The Tragedy of the Commons, argues as follows:

 Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.  Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land.  Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality.  At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

 As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”  This utility has one negative and one positive component.

 1)            The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal.  Since the herdsman  receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

 2)            The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal.  Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

 Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. 

 Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited.  Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.  Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

I have an example of the tragedy of the commons from times a little more recent. I saw a home car detailing company (people who cut and polish the duco, blacken the tyres, vacuum the interior, etc) preparing to do their best on a yellow Mercedes. The car was sitting in a driveway, surrounded by the tools of the trade, a steam cleaner, an industrial vacuum cleaner and 5 litre containers of our most effective cleanser.

The detailer had, no doubt, quoted a price to do the job, including the costs for labour, materials and for use of the specialised equipment. The car owner would have accepted that price, possibly in anticipation of the increased value of the vehicle due its spanking new appearance.

But what about the price we have paid, to both the owner and the detailer? That the gunk, detergents and solvents, has passed down the drain and into the environment, which, after all, is collectively ours, means that we are accepting, knowingly or otherwise, the costs for disposal of these effluents. The alternative is that the detailer would contain all the wastes produced in performing the task, and use some environmentally-appropriate but relatively expensive means of disposing of them. That this is not done and that we all share a degraded environment as a result effectively means that we are subsidising the whole operation.

The cost borne by each member of the community is infinitesimally small and is rarely evident, except on days of high pollution or when a combination of natural factors make such things apparent. Yet that cost is assuredly there. There are myriad examples all around, from diesel exhaust gases from a trucking operator’s fleet, a dog owner’s cherished pet defecating daily on the local nature strips and our open fires on chill winter nights.

In order to act in our own interests, we can be in direct conflict with the common interest. The problems for environments arise through the mismatch of an individual’s interest with the collective interest. I’ll come to what I think our responses ought to include shortly, but first I’d like to suggest another analysis.

Possessing understanding

The second analysis is based on the relationship we Australians have with our natural environment. David Tacey, a senior lecturer in English and Australian Literature at La Trobe University approaches the distorted relationship we have with the environment from a spiritual perspective. He considers that

“we can urge each other to care more about the environment, but until we have revised our sense of identity to include the natural world, our best intentions may be in vain.”

I have taken the following lines from his book, Edge of the Sacred – Transformation in Australia.

“The coastal fringe represented safety, the known, the civilised parts, and the interior was viewed as barren, scary, unknown. It was either not spoken about at all (an area of cultural silence) or it was viewed with a good deal of distaste as a place of death and disintegration ..  the dead centre”.

Tacey uses a heading Landscape as spiritual laboratory for the following passage:

“But Australian landscape is like the unconscious itself: if you respect it and realise the ego can never hope to assimilate, conquer, or transform it, you are allowed to survive. That is and must be our way ..”

To continue this line of argument, Patrick White, in his celebrated novel Voss, explores this same theme – the suspicion felt by Europeans towards the country they had come to inhabit.

“Everyone is still afraid, or most of us, of this country, and will not say it. We are not yet possessed of understanding”

Even now, when we do venture into the heart of Australia, it is with all the technical equipment to subdue, and to reinforce our mastery over the land. A literal example of my contention can be seen with the behaviour of tourists to Uluru where they insist on climbing, even conquering, the rock, now contrary to the clearly-expressed wishes of the traditional owners. Our overwhelmingly urban population (in excess of 85% of Australians are urban residents) sustains the myth of the outback Aussie through the exploits of Paul ‘Mick Dundee’ Hogan, Major Les “Bush Tucker Man’ Hiddens, Alby Mangels and usually silent assistant and the many more who provide vicarious experiences of the environment from the safety of our lounge rooms. We buy big four wheel drives to cope with the tough Australian conditions, but we rarely venture off the bitumen. We reinforce the myth of our accommodation with the environment in the retelling of tales of European tourists who misjudge the water scarcity or temperature, on the Birdsville Track or Gunbarrell Highway or other similarly wonderfully named roads, and perish. We European’s relationship with the natural environment continues problematic, we romanticise but also demonise and we are certainly not yet ‘possessed of understanding’.

Complexity and a reductionist science

My third analysis concerns Western science itself, with its reductionist approach that sees complex and interconnected phenomena reduced to myriad smaller parts for understanding and response. The problem with this mountains to molehills approach to the environment is that the complexity of ecosystems, and the consequences of human interactions for biodiversity, even the physical environment itself, is denied. Sometimes environmental issues are indeed mountains. The simplifications we make to assist understanding shouldn’t be confused with accurate pictures of the environment itself. When confronted with an environmental issue, we apply a scientific analysis that starts with a measure of various biological or biochemical indicators, proceeds to the constructions of various models and then the implementation of some amelioration strategy.

We respond to one subset of the environment and inevitably generate a problem elsewhere. Rabbits, deliberately introduced to satisfy the nostalgia of the Chirnside family last century, quickly multiplied to threaten the viability of many agricultural enterprises. Following the incomplete success of myxomatosis, the calicivirus was developed and released. For many reasons, not of all of which have been uncovered by the detailed research of the CSIRO, calicivirus is also incompletely successful. It is having a marked effect in arid regions, however, and the wedge-tailed eagle, and feral cats, both of which had come to depend on easy prey around rabbit warrens, are being investigated for the degree of prey-switching that is occurring. Will more of our small marsupials and native rodents become extinct because of the need to control rabbits?

The recent success of the anti-fur campaign ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead in this fur but its original owner was’ has also had unintended consequences. Whereas the $30 plus dollars a fox-pelt was a sufficient incentive for country lads to go spotlighting and so provide some control on populations, there is now no such sale for pelts and no incentive for shooting foxes, so their increased populations have an increased effect on native mammals, ground-dwelling birds and reptiles. And from this weekís Age, a story details the fox population increase through increased breeding success in the safe havens of blue gum plantations, established to provide an alternative to logging old growth forests.

I am reminded very rarely of my high school physics, but I do recall the two quite different models, the wave model and the particle model, that assist us in understanding the behaviour of light. Neither tells us what light is, but we can appreciate the behaviour of light from these two almost contradictory models. Similarly, I suspect that there is no one right way to analyse human interactions with all things environmental. These are complex issues which require examination from many perspectives for as detailed picture as possible to be constructed, and in any response we make, we must be prepared to be wrong.

For a response to have the best chance of being appropriate, it needs to be based on the most complete understanding possible. These are complex issues, but we deal with complex issues every day. I have an activity that explores our personal responses to a range of everyday circumstances, within generally environmental contexts.

Personal environmental practices

Write the letter for each of the comments that apply to you. There may be more than one in each group.

A         You ‘ve taken a non-family member camping this year
B          You’ve been camping  this year
C          You own a tent

A         You have travelled overseas at least once in the last five years
B          You read a newspaper daily
C          You watch a current affairs TV program at least weekly

A         You are a member of a conservation society or club
B          You have written to a newspaper or a politician this year
C          You have attended a conservation activity (tree planting, Clean up day, etc.) this year

A         You  are a vegetarian
B          You eat at least three serves of vegetables or fruit per day
C          You only eat red meat about once per week

A         You don’t have lawn at home
B          You have a dual flush toilet
C          You have solar or solar-boosted hotwater

A         You often read the labels on containers of new fo n  in the supermarket

B          You take your own shopping bags when you shop
C          You have a compost bin at home

A         You run, swim, do yoga, tai chi or some other physical activity at least five days per week
B          You have been to a gym or played sports with a club in the last month
C          You have taken part in an organised sports activity this year

A         You walk or ride a bike to work
B          You have taken a trip on public transport in the last week
B          You use petrol with 10% ethanol
D         You own a 4 WD vehicle but you have only driven on sealed roads this year

A         You do not have a cat
B          You have a dog and you have picked up its droppings at least once
C          You have a cat and it has a bell on its neck

Give yourself 5 points for each A that you circled, 3 points for each B and 1 point for each C, take away 5 points for D

The maximum score possible is 81. Who has more than 40? 50? 60? For the winner, here is a Picnic Bar, for second a Time Out (and isn’t that a great ad, with the mother daydreaming of lions in the veldt, with the suggestion of Born Free in the background) and who is third – for you a can of Solo, advertised by a rugged canoeist on a number X rapid. A couch potato with a can of sugary soft drink is a far cry from that action man, incidentally. We mythologise (who has been out in the bush on a Picnic this year) romanticise (we could all be Joy Adamson looking after our own Elsa), and conquer the environment. This is, I believe, at the heart of our environmental problems. We have a distorted relationship with our environment.

This quiz helps map out our own experiences in interacting with environments. How often do we go out in the environment, and have we taken others out? The second bracket – how aware am I about the world and its issues? From the third bracket, am I prepared to do something about it? Other brackets highlight different environmental impacts that we have, bearing in mind that we make decisions using a number of criteria, with minimal environmental impact being one of them. Take the last issue, can I be an environmentalist and have a cat? We know that cats have high rates of predation on birds, and we also know that elderly people living alone with a cat have a reduced use of medical services. There is no simplistic analysis of even the cat issue. That decision is yours, as of course are the consequences of that decision. In order to make sensible decisions though, you will need to know whatís is going on, you need to be able to find things out, you should be aware of the values contexts in which you filter knowledge and actions, and you should be prepared to carry out thoughts into action. This is what environmental education is on about.

This leads me back to the first analysis. I am an elderly person living alone and I derive all the benefits of the puss purring on my lap. My birdwatching neighbours each suffer a slightly reduced pleasure in the now slightly reduced bird population. The commons is now the avifauna, and one person’s benefit comes at a general cost.

So now to the detail of my preferred response of environmental education. To overcome the tragedy of the commons, we can legislate (you will be fined and/or imprisoned if you have two cows), we can impose sanctions or give incentives (the benefit of the second cow will be taxed at 200%) or we can educate, and develop in all an understanding of the preconditions for sustainability of the commons. I cannot think of any law where there is universal compliance, and Iím sure that this is the case from the earliest bean counters with abacus at hand through to the bevy of accountants in smart minimisation schemes at work today. The most likely response that will lead to long-term and wide-spread compliance is education and we all need the commons, the environment, to remain healthy.

Environmental education

So I am arguing for education, environmental education, defined as follows:  Environmental education is a process aimed at developing a world population that is aware of, and concerned about the total environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, attitudes, motivations, commitments and skills to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and prevention of new ones             Stapp and Cox, 1979

The components of environmental education are as follows:


At this most basic level, visitors are aware that there are issues concerning animals and the environment, and that there is a range of views towards these issues. Many of the media campaigns that feature the environment are based upon this initial component of environmental education.



If people and groups are to be involved in caring for their environment, they should have knowledge upon which to base that involvement. They should have an understanding of causes of environmental problems and the range of possible responses.


Through the development of skills of observation, research, analysis, evaluation, communication, etc. people and groups can take effective action in response to environmental problems.


When we hold a values position of concern for the environment or other species, we are more likely to do something about it. We need to be clear about the values we hold.


This is the crucial component of environmental education that makes it for the environment. Environmental education is not an intellectual exercise, it is a process that results, through active intervention, in environmental protection and/or improvement. After becoming aware of a problem, knowing what is happening and what I can do about it, having the skills to be effective and a values position that says it is my responsibility to do something – I do it.

I may be active in something and become curious and want to learn, or I may start from an intellectual position of awareness or knowledge and move into a phase of action. Environmental education is not a linear process, one can learn as one does, and usually does. But, always look for that action component.

If I apply my environmental education process to the matter of cat ownership and decide to have a cat, so be it. I know the benefits, and I know the consequences. I work within the context of my values positions on pet ownership, regard for native birds and the psychological benefits of purring cats and I decide accordingly. If I choose to have a cat, I take steps to minimise the negative consequences and maximise the positives. The psychological benefits brings me now to the second analysis, one of alienation from the environment. How does environmental education help?

Suspicion of and discomfort in the environment, eloquently described in Voss which is set in 1845, and in Edge of the Sacred, which is contemporary, leads to a separation of people from environments. It is something quite apart, for which we have no responsibility. A lack of appreciation and respect for environments, and other cultural interpretations of environments allows the dominant western reductionist view to prevail – and so we mine sacred sites, graze hard-hoofed cattle in alpine meadows and bogs and see mangroves as potential canal developments. And it starts with the young. For generations raised on bedtime stories of hobby-hahs, boogy men, drop bears and other things that go more than just bump in the dark, positive attitudes towards natural environments will take time, and deliberate actions on our part, to develop.

Education in the outdoors

From the Tragedy of the Common we can see the results of conflict between individual and community interest. In response, activities that are collaborative, and that are only successful when they are collaborative, show the limitations of individuals. Such activities occur best within relationships that include shared values and understanding about purposes and procedures. Many outdoor activities themselves can be used to develop these relationships.

I believe that outdoor educators have a fundamental role here in assisting more Australians to develop a new relationship to the environment. You have the accessible, safe and enjoyable venues in outdoor settings. Plan activity programs that develop observation skills and promote knowledge of the environment for your patrons, include activities that require collaboration and problem-solving to develop confidence, and above all, ensure that your patrons are having fun. They should want to repeat the experience. Activities that lead to a range of responses and that encourage creativity and divergent thinking help participants move outside a linear, reductionist approach to problem-solving. Sensory activities and programs in the arts are particularly valuable here. Plan a night program, have them explore using different senses, bring in people skilled in aspects of the local environment, whether an old-timer with a good memory for the historical perspective, a birdo or a reptiles person to show them things they would not ordinarily notice or a fern or fungi freak to stimulate their curiousity about new things.

There are many sources of support for such outdoor programs. The Gould League of Victoria has a number of titles that present activities for all audiences, while the CAV and VOEA will be able to provide assistance also. For operators of camp venues, there is sound business sense in this also, for visitors who have had enjoyable and rewarding experiences are likely to come back for repeats. The aim of any outdoor program, I argue, is developing confidence in the participants and the desire in them to want to come back again and again, and bring their kids. Those experiences that led us to the involvements in environments we have today should be shared with as many as possible as often as possible. Skill development, gaining knowledge, taking up further challenge all need to be managed, but without participants eager to be out there and confident to extend themselves, the attitudes that have led to our present unsustainable impacts will continue. And if that is the case, the environment that our descendants will find at the dawn of that fourth millenium will be rather bleak. Conversely, when we value the environment, when we care for it and all life in it, we can become ëpossessed of understandingí.



Hawley, Janet, He let his brush speak for him, in The Age, Monday 26 April, 1999
Tacey, David J., Edge of the Sacred – Transformation in Australia, Harper Collins, 1995
White, Patrick, Voss, Penguin, 1957
Hardin, Garrett, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science Vol 162, pp 1243 – 1248, 13 December, 1968
Stapp, W. B. and Cox, D. A., Environmental Activities Manual, University of Michigan, 1974

Greg Hunt

Program Coordinator School Education
Melbourne MuseumP O Box 666E
Melbourne  Vic  3001
 Mordi Skeptics 1 Sept

This presentation, prepared for the Mordi Skeptics (Mordialloc Skeptics) has slides that relate to many oif the themes in this paper.  For further information, please get in touch and I’ll be happy to explain.