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Biology and economics students ‘let down’ by university leadership

Essential ecological issues linking ecosystems and the economy are being overlooked in the teaching programmes of higher education organisations.

According to Karl Hansen, director of The Living Rainforest, Rhodes Scholar and co-writer of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development final report, Western universities are ignoring vital parts of the ecology-economy equation, in a way that could call into question their ability to act as credible educational leaders for the future.

This inadequate ‘patchwork’ approach to ecological problems means that students lack understanding of relationships and interactions between people and nature, and particularly how the human species impacts on the rest of the ecosphere. Instead, students tend to be well versed in single department specialisms, without looking at the bigger ‘whole systems’ picture. Economic systems can undermine the ability of ecosystems to sustain life, yet few courses take this on board, either by teaching ecology students about the economy or economics students about ecology.

As a result, academics in economics, business studies, botany and zoology often feel they have little in common and see environmental problems as ‘outside their area’. Hansen particularly singles out mainstream economics for teaching over-simplistic models which ignore natural resource limitations and ecological destruction. “There is no chapter in the economics text book for the damage and destruction caused,” he said.

“Artificial divisions between departments are harmful, particularly between students of ecology and economics. A case in point is when the BSE crisis hit the UK and there was a market for ‘safe’ beef, so acres of South American rainforest were destroyed to meet the rising demand. Universities as a whole, not just a handful of departments, need to teach students to see the connection between human needs and the wider ecosystem.”

Hansen is calling for the urgent revision of curricula, particularly in mainstream economics departments. He believes that until future generations of students are taught that ecology and economics are linked at the roots, we have little hope of coming to grips with global ecological destruction. In response to the urgent situation, The Living Rainforest is organising a week-long forum of events this November designed to spotlight practical barriers to effective ecological education.

“What chance do future educators stand of teaching others if they themselves are only being taught part of the picture?” he said. “A few forward-thinking departments have recognised the need to focus on this linkage, but it’s still rare to see whole universities or colleges committing to the challenge.”

Hansen hopes to engage universities to rethink their overall approach, in the light of the new educational responsibilities which arise from the mounting ecological crisis. More details on the November forum will soon be available on The Living Rainforest website.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 23rd, 2004 at 12:56 pm and is filed under News.

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