In 2015-2017 I led environment and sustainability-themed short travel program study tours for undergraduate students to China and South Korea. These were among the most rewarding professional experiences of my career and a rich learning experience for all involved. However, on reflection I feel like they could have been so much more. This posting is an excerpt from a working draft on a reflective practice paper I am currency working on, in which I explore the conceptual case for the shamanic journey as a model around which to structure short overseas travel program subjects.
A challenge for sustainability transition education relates to how we structure our mode and delivery of sustainability transition knowledge in a way that is transformative and provides students with an experiential grasp on competing environmental discourses and their ontological foundations. It requires students to engage with seemingly unsolvable problems tied up in the Gordian Knot between ecosystems and human society, economy, politics, culture and technology, requiring of them a working understanding of interconnections and complex systems, as the threshold concept for sustainability transition practice (Dale and Newman 2005, 351-362; Sandri 2013, 810-822; Bernier 2017, 43).
Education for sustainability incorporates critical thinking and reflection with complex systems literacy and the creative imagining different futures, delivered in modes that enable participation and constructive action (von der Heidt and Lamberton 2011, 670). The “ontological reflexivity” to locate oneself as an actor within sustainability transition processes (Mayes 2005, 329-348) can be difficult to achieve in a traditional classroom environment. The baggage of classroom power hierarchies and the sensory disconnection of the classroom from the world at large make it difficult to meaningfully engage at an ontological level.
I have been reflecting on the moments of deep existential journeying that inevitably seemed to materialise in-country for students during my study tours to China and South Korea. I realised that there was something powerful in these experiences that we could tap into, bringing students into the space of deep reflection necessary to explore the profound ontological questions posed by the sustainability transition. From my own personal practice, I understood that shamanism could provide the alchemical framework to help the students reach an understanding of their deep inter-connection with the environment and their place in the sustainability transition process. From a pedagogical perspective, shamanism provides us with a set of concepts through which we might critically evaluate our approaches to teaching and learning in the Anthropocene and develop some insights into effective pedagogical design for sustainability transition praxis (Steel 2014, 1–17).
It is not the intention of this paper to provide an intricate description of the many traditional knowledge systems from around the world that collectively fall under the banner of shamanism. What is interesting about these bodies of knowledge is their ubiquity across all cultures and the common elements that can be distilled from these knowledge systems. It is these common elements that can provide us with a framework for interrogating our ontological commitments and thus the professional practices that are informed by them, in new and constructive ways that are appropriate for our historic moment.
Shamanism represents a complex melange of traditional knowledge systems and practices that span many different time periods, cultural and geographic contexts (Gade 2002, 39-45). In a seminal book on the subject, Mircea Eliade (Eliade 1964) described shamanism as a “technique of ecstasy.” The shaman is able to navigate between their ordinary reality and other alternative realities through the technique of the shamanic journey (Harner 1982; Rysdyk 2016), whereby the shaman assumes an altered state of consciousness to enter alternative states of reality and commune with other intelligences in order to acquire knowledge, to heal, restore harmony, and manifest change for individuals and communities in their ordinary reality (Harner 1982; Senn 1989, 113-121). The shaman stands at the nexus point between different realities, between the known and the unknown, between the actor and their context, between people and place (Bussey 2009, 29 – 42; Kenny 2012, 529-533).
As such, the shaman is an ideal archetype upon which to model sustainability transition practice, which requires students to critically reflect on their relationships with everything around them, both animate and inanimate. Transformational learning of this type requires deep ontological reflection on the part of the student (Mayes 1999, 3-16), through which they locate themselves in relation to sustainability transition challenges and the differing ontological positions of different environmental (and anti-environmental) discourses (Haluza-DeLay 1997, 5-8). The interactions between actors and processes within this contested politics occur at different spatial scales (Franklin 2004, 1-4). Key to understanding these multi-scale dynamics are inter complex systems approaches that locate actors as both wholes and constituent components of various inter-dependent systems at multiple scales (Meadows 1999, 1-19, Homer-Dixon 2010; Clemens 2013; Cudworth and Hobden 2013).
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