Has Anybody Seen the Environment?

May 20, 2015 1:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf writes explores the topic of environment.

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Has anybody seen the environment?


I am no expert on this stuff and, as an unreconstructed Londoner, the idea of the natural world is somewhat alarming and potentially menacing. It is, at least, unhygienic unless there are changing facilities, a decent bar, and signs clearly indicating where you may and may not go, and what animals are nice and what are not. The natural world is for me full of muddy mysteries and creepy crawly things.

Photo: Environment by Enokson

However, I am aware that the environment is somewhat of a hot topic in our field of international education. I am also aware that environmental studies is not only about pastoral worlds and bucolic folk (though rather a lot of it seems to be). I am also conscious of the fact that environmentalism and environmental studies are not the same thing. Environmentalism frequently seems to involve an activist, political agenda usually opposed to globalization, urbanization, and development.

There is a sense in which both environmental studies and environmentalism are driven by a distinctive political imperative: a response to the assumption that human action has damaged the global environment. The contested notion of global warming reflects the degree to which these discussions are politicized and made complex by matters of scientific and theological belief.

This is a metaphor for the destruction of the environment (or just a broken pencil on the sidewalk outside of Tram's)
Photo: Environment by Dave Gingrich

In another context, the concepts of environmental studies and environmentalism demonstrate that the ways in which we define the boundaries of knowledge are under reconstruction. It may be argued that environmental studies is an inter or multi-disciplinary area of investigation. It may also be argued that the area demonstrates the emergence of a new discipline in which traditional boundaries become redundant: the borders of knowledge are artificial and subject to change: Science used to be a branch of Natural Philosophy; Anthropology was invented in the nineteenth century; Alchemy is rarely found in the curriculum of US higher education. In one sense, global studies may accelerate the redundancies of traditional categories and study abroad is, potentially, in the vanguard of those processes.

So, this is not an area of untroubled consensus. The notion of environment is more problematic than might be suggested in the dominant narratives of study abroad. Despite the complexities and semantic mists, there are very clear ways in which environmental studies and study abroad occupy a connected educational space. If part of the agenda of study abroad is to study the place we designate abroad, then a focus on that environment is mandatory.


In any case, before we can find the environment, we have to try and define it. In the study abroad context, there has been a tendency to focus rather narrowly. There are, by way of demonstration, at least four elements that I think must be considered:

a) The natural and animal world.

b) The built environment.

c) The human population that inhabits those environments.

d) The factors that impact upon the ways in which that population interacts with natural, animal and built environments: ethics, politics, myths, and the myriad of other dynamics that shape behaviors and ideologies.

Photo: Urbanization in Shanghai by Bernd Thaller

Most study abroad programmes in practice define environmental studies within the first three categories: nature, built environment and people. If we create a more inclusive view of what constitutes the environment the focus is usefully broader and deeper.

A consideration of environment as the natural and animal world raises familiar questions of the impact of human development, urban expansion, exploitation of resources, conservation, and so on. The degree to which development and nature may coexist is at the core of this concern. The implicit imperative is driven by a quasi-apocalyptic narrative clustered around the global-warming controversy.

Closely connected to this area is the consideration of the impact of the places we have built, in particular the implication of growing urbanization. Over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities yet they represent about 2% of the world’s surface. That alone is a significant factor in any educational agenda. The impact of built environment raises numerous questions including the scale and pace of urban construction; the impact of that construction on architectural heritage; pollution and the unequal exploitation of resources; the impact on population mobility, and so on.


An area of environmental studies that demands equal attention is, simply, people. Without people, natural environments are Edenic: dreamed locations that have little to do with our agenda or our experience. A focus on populations raises different questions. These are not simply, or only, issues of biology, technology, science, or even architecture and urban development. In study abroad this aspect of environmental studies needs to involve a re-consideration of community: people in association. The changing nature of our environment has had a profound impact on what we mean by community.

Photo: Wifi hotspot by woodleywonderworks

In study abroad we conventionally create learning objectives that include the aspiration to encourage community engagement. This may fail to take into account the fact that community is transformed, fragmented, and a problematic context. The ways in which we now live and work, are fluid and mutable. Our forefathers may have worked the land in a fashion that they believed was timeless. The skills they taught their children were passed on through generations who may well have been born, lived and died in the same place. Knowledge was rooted in community. We do not have that surety or security. Time is no longer measured by the rising and setting of the sun. Community is no longer defined by geography

When we prioritize engagement with community we are indulging in some form of archaeology: an objective based on nostalgia. We can expose students to the remnants of community – not without some value, but not representative of the global realities within which most of us function.


Environments are not only built in concrete. These are not objective spaces but constructs shaped by myths, stories, ideologies, histories. Places, like countries, are landscapes manufactured through the imagination. Without considering the action of mind on environment, our perspectives are narrowed and impoverished. In this context, we need obviously to ask a radically different set of questions about how the environment is perceived and what factors impact upon those perceptions.

Photo: Big city lights by Matthias Ripp

In education abroad the manner in which Europe is envisaged illustrates the process. Europe is imagined in several different ways: it is a fragile political association of diverse countries. Depending on your focus it may be the political construct in which the centre moved eastwards after 1989. In any case, it is a space that is neither static nor easily defined. It is composed of individual countries and is a single political space. If we teach students about Spain, Italy or Greece, the relationship with some version of Europe is likely to be part of the curriculum. Europe is a political idea, a shifting collection of countries.

It is also, simultaneously, a set of associations, myths, stories and legends that have created a notion of Europe in the American mind. In that construct, Europe is a single entity; it is an accumulation of meanings and iconographic images rather than political and geographical space. This version of Europe deeply permeates US perceptions. This is the Europe of Washington Irving, Henry James, Mark Twain and generations of American writers and explorers. The iconography of study abroad frequently endorses and enforces this idea of Europe; it is the environment that study abroad students often seek to inhabit. It is characterised by High Art, historical density, social complexity. This idea of Europe is formed more by the imagination than by political, economic or geographical realities. Europe in the American imagination is, in this manifestation, a single concept: a landscape rich in art, histories, and poetic symbols. Those characteristics are as formative and real as the Europe of frontiers, nations, and the European Union.


Consequently, we need to look for the environment in a wider context and in more places than is the current norm. It is not a given reality but a complex mixture of what God has made, of populations in flux, communities in fragments; it is shaped by what people have built, and by what people have dreamed: the myths, legends, beliefs and historical memories that permeate the places in which we teach and study. Environment cannot be measured only by what we observe, count, survey, or photograph. Google-map views offer myopic perspectives. In study abroad, the focus on environment needs to go beyond geography.

The idea of environment challenges the boundaries of academic knowledge. If we oversimplify, we deprive students of the capacity to think beyond those artificial conventions. In asking if anyone has seen the environment we raise a set of complex but important questions. The aphorism attributed to Albert Einstein signals our educational obligation: “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Thanks Mike!

Read More From Dr. Michael Woolf

Topics: International Education, Study Abroad