Jonathan Porritt has spent over 30 years or more caring for nature and finding ways to support healthy economies, educational and natural systems.

Edited from Jonathan Porritt’s speech at the South Downs National Park Outdoor learning conference March 2013:

“Most of my world is spent talking about great, big, abstract issues, and sometimes they’re lumped under the framework of sustainable development, sometimes under environment, sometimes under green politics, whatever it might be. Big, abstract, conceptual ways of looking at the world. The difficulty about this is that it can so often miss the mark when you try to explain what it really means!

I have two big things I would like to talk about today:

Firstly, philosophically, one of the biggest issues we face today is this sense of being un-rooted; disconnected from natural world. It’s a huge problem that we face now across the whole of society. It’s a huge problem that we face now across the whole face of society, that more and more people don’t feel that visceral sense of connectedness with the natural world. It’s to do with that deep relationship, it’s to do with what sociologists describe as a ‘profound sense of alienation’ between the majority of human beings, particularly those living in urban context, and the natural world that sustains them and makes life possible for them.

This has been creeping up on us for many decades. Now, does this really matter? After all you might say that there are many more important things to be attending to. Why would we bother about this when we have so many front of mind topical, hard issues to do with society today. For me, this is a really difficult issue, because unless we get to some of these deeper concerns, much of what we do around the specific campaigning issues will not be rooted in the current reality of where we are today. Will not be grounded in that reality.

Just think, for instance, about the current debate on ‘Ecosystem Services’. Providers of educational experiences may find this an easy concept to get their heads around, but people who are not directly involved in this world, it becomes difficult.

How difficult is it to actually explain that the concept in ecosystem services is a way of recalibrating and re-understanding people communities and place? Giving us a sense of deeper insights into those whole complicated relationships inside the wider system. Now the one thing we’ve learnt through education through sustainable development over the last 20 years is that we have to take the system’s wide approach route. And that is why the concept ecosystem services is so important.

Educationally speaking we have to ground that in people’s real experiences; day to day experiences – you have to unpack it in terms of “what do some of these ecosystems mean?”. So that it becomes relevant. We have to understand what regulation means, and how the place that people are in, influences the service and climate regulation.

Perhaps more directly we have to think about issues like, pollination! Huge issues today about the impact of some modern farming techniques, on the ability both on the wild bees and the other species to provide the pollination services on which we depend. There is now a growing school of economists who seek to put a value on each of these eco system services.

What is the value to human kind of the free work done on our behalf? Like all those insects, birds, bees, bats… all those creatures that just as part of their life carry on, carry on this pollination work for us. Try and tot up the X billions of pounds which we would have to find to pay for man-made, human-made pollination services to replace the natural pollination.

We have to ground all this, it doesn’t really mean very much to people unless we can explain it in their own place, in their own circumstances, in their own settings. And for young people today this is absolutely critical.

For me, this is a personal story. I started my life as a green activist as a teacher, teaching in a comprehensive school in West London in Shepherd’s Bush. Kids that we taught from that school were all from a very large, very unfriendly, hostile housing estate – not a happy place to be a child. And the school where we were was sort of in a line of institutions; there was the school, then the hospital, and then the prison. And this was the sort of institutional line up all the way down the road immediately facing the estate. So kids kind of got the idea of the progression that might be ahead of them!

So when I started teaching in 1975 one of the first things that we did then was to start thinking: “How do you create opportunities for the kids from those estates to get any sort of access at all, ANYTHING that might be described as the natural world”

And I did not mean the playing fields that were immediately behind us, because that was a sort of green desert that the kind many of you will be completely familiar with. Very green, but basically sprayed to death in terms of life diversities by the well-meaning local authority at that time.

So from day 1 for me the biggest environmental challenge is: How do we widen the immediate experience of young people in that area, to give them access to something that could become critically important to them? To give them a chance to connect to a different part of our reality?

One of the things we did was to set up this interesting, crazy scheme, (which probably wouldn’t even get clearance on health in safety these days!) where we used to just pile into mini vans and take them off to Wales to learn about farming. This was my first experience as a green activist! It was the opportunity to work with young people and my fellow teachers to provide access to learning experiences of that kind. To challenge, change, open up the perspective of the grounding, grounding from day one. Making it real.

Our second big issues, is that we are right in the middle of a widening debate about what is now called “Food Security”. All these things get different names at different times as we go around, eventually we’ll circle around to the same kind of concept.

Governments today are very focused on what is going to happen as we head towards a population of 8 and a half million people by 2050.

What is going to happen as climate change impacts more and more ferociously on the ability of nations to produce the food that they need?

What is going happen in a world where human population is growing at 1.3% per atom and increase yields in agriculture are growing at 1.2% per atom?

It doesn’t take very much when you’re thinking macro here to understand that as the number of human beings is growing faster than our ability to increase the yield on all our main agricultural crops, we’re heading for a bit of a bus stop.

Especially the time when all of these other systems around climate, around water, around energy consumption, around access are all under stress of one kind of another. Food security is now right there! It’s a big issue, it’s discussed at every global conference that you can imagine.

What does the concept of Food Security mean when young people today when they don’t have any natural bearing in their lives. Where is the connection between food, the land, society, individual consumers?

This whole approach to bringing food production into our schools, into the education context is again very important. Now we are actually doing quite a good job here in the UK, slightly astonished to read in a report recent from the royal board of culturalism, 80% of schools in the UK are now involved in food production systems in one way or another. 80%! I don’t know if my colleagues working in landscapes would share the same data set, but it seems like an encouraging kind of statistic to start with.

A lot of our major retailers are now quite supportive of school based food production systems, such as Waitrose and Morrison’s. Enabling young people to have experience of growing their own food, harvesting their own food, cooking their own food, whatever it may be, creates connectivity through a grounded understanding of what food production is all about.

We have a fantastically strong evidence base of the value of learning outside the classroom, for example we know about its benefits relating to increasing educational attainment rates, particularly in the Sciences. There is lots of extremely convincing evidence as to what happens to young people’s sense of their well being. The opportunities it provides for development of social skills, creating those opportunities directly from young people. There is a whole host of what may be described as the quality, not quantity, but the quality of the benefits that this learning experiences brings.

In particular, look at how this encourages young children to think about their diet much more, there are some very interesting figures on how experience in food production system promotes better dietary patterns amongst young people, and increased uptake in that 5-a-day dietary behaviour, and that’s all good!

Then you look at what that’s actually achieving in the UK. Less than 20% of kids today are doing their 5 a day. We know that we now live in a world where an increased percentage of young people under the age of 15 as categorized as ‘obese’ and at the moment we have no strategy for getting on top of obesity related issues. Healthy diets, obesity, life styles, well being – the UK is still bumbling along at the bottom of many of these league tables.

The only reason why I even mentioned those somewhat downbeat statistics is because they are the backdrop to what we are trying to do. They provide the, if we needed it, additional spur to go on and make these schemes even more effective to influence an even larger number of young people today and in the process to take me back to where I started: To influence the deep framing that goes on in young people. This is a really important part of the story.

All of these experiences fade out a little bit if they are all short lived, less engaged, less constant than we’d like them to be. All these experiences help shape the emerging worldview, the mind map if you’d like, of young people at a critical point in their development.

The more you reinforce those experiences of the natural world, at that age, the greater the likelihood that they will take that into their adolescence and adulthood. A deep perception, not necessarily an intellectually articulated perception, but a deep perception of the importance of the natural world, our relationship with the natural world. The degree to which we need to nurture and sustain the natural world in order to look after look after human beings.

That deep framing of what is going out there today is absolutely fundamental to what we are doing. It’s one of the most exciting things we are all involved in today. I imagine that many of you will have read Richard Louv’s book: “Lost Child in the woods” which for me when I read, nearly 10 years ago now, came as a complete and utter shocking story about what is going to happen to the resilience in society if we deprive young people of any opportunities for that deep rich connectivity with the natural world. It is a beautifully written powerful, political avid prop if I can describe it as that. Such a strong reminder to all of us that everything we are already doing now to help young people see this sense of connectivity is all the more important, and something we absolutely have to attend to.

What I’ve tried to do today is to link these kind of initiatives happening, this partnership, to the huge challenging wonderful idea that we can connect young people to their physical environment through learning experiences outside the classroom. I hope that is inspiring to your day, to all of you, and for all of them.”