Relational Learning: Education in a Time of Great Turning

Written By Will Scott and Sam Edmondson

We live in interesting times. On one hand, we find ourselves in the midst of a global ecological crisis. Climate change—brought on by human actions—is leading to environmental shifts that are unprecedented in their speed. On the other hand, radical developments across diverse disciplines—science, the arts, global networking, sociopolitical activism and others—are hurling themselves towards solutions. How do we make sense of the complex problems we face and the disparate efforts to solve them?

Buddhist philosopher and environmental leader Joanna Macy has described these two trends as “the great unraveling,” in which our environment, social structures, and species are collapsing under the weight of current stresses; and “the great turning,” in which new understandings are unfolding for how humankind can—and must—live in harmony with itself and the planet.

The impacts of the ecological unraveling are well defined: Rising global temperatures, melting of the polar ice, extreme weather, ocean acidification, rising sea level, freshwater shortages, and many other alarming trends. Similarly, the main immediate causes are known: rampant use of fossil fuels and deforestation, with other contributing factors mixed in. These forces are creating a complex matrix of social, political, cultural and ecological instabilities that place increasing stress on our selves, families, communities and societies.

The pervasive personal, social, economic, political, and environmental issues of our times are not isolated events, but a tapestry of imbalances symptomatic of a deeper disparity underlying the entire system. Is it possible that a profound alienation between many modern humans and the natural world has bred a relationship to nature so unbalanced that we scarcely realize that when we consume and destroy the planet’s resources we are also destroying ourselves? To change course, we must undoubtedly address the immediate symptoms of this crisis. But we must also address the root causes of our predicament—otherwise, we may relieve a particular symptom only to find it arising again in a different manifestation down the line.

So what golden thread might we pull to ensure that humanity returns into a balanced relationship with the natural world that lasts for the generations to come? In other words, how do we again become a vibrant, constructive, and interdependent part of the ecology that sustains us? This question rests at the heart of the work we do at Weaving Earth.

We contend that our greatest challenge (and joy) lies in fostering the holistic development of individuals and communities capable of responding to today’s complex world. Our efforts to do so are rooted in reawakening the innate human capacity for deep connection to self, to others (community) and to the natural world. The seed of connection is intrinsic within us all, and is catalyzing into consciousness through curiosity, care and a love for learning. We use the term “Relational Education” to describe this kind of education for our times—an education grounded in a paradigm of connection and interdependence. Call it what we may, the ultimate goal is what matters most: Individuals and communities who are deeply rooted to their places and who make wise choices that protect those places for the generations of all life to come.