Thursday, 9 February 2017

Can Bushcraft Save The Planet?

I think there is one particular outdoor activity which might be more effective at helping people learn to care for the environment than any other. Could bushcraft be that activity?   

Environmental Education (EE) as it exists now is a relatively new field, developed as a result of growing concern that the environment was suffering from pollution, deforestation, desertification etc. as a result of human activity. Although the  Schools Councils 1974 Project Environment discussed the difference between education  ABOUT, FROM and FOR the environment, EE was not addressed on a global scale until the Tbilisi conference in 1977. Organised by UNESCO the conference brought together delegates from  66 nations and representatives from UN agencies and NGOs to participate in the world's first intergovernmental conference on environmental education. 

As a result of this conference, a declaration was adopted, after a unanimous agreement that EE had an important role in the preservation and improvement of the global environment. This declaration included the following goals; 

  • to foster clear awareness of, and concern about, economic, social, political, and ecological interdependence in urban and rural areas;
  • to provide every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment, and skills needed to protect and improve the environment;
  • to create new patterns of behaviour of individuals, groups, and society as a whole towards the environment.

Traditionally Outdoor Education has included EE among its aims and objectives, although it could be argued that actually most outdoor education does not directly meet the goals of EE instead focusing on the acquisition of technical skills, team building or confidence. But I think there is one particular outdoor activity which might be more effective at delivering the goals of EE than any other. 


Bushcraft is one of those activities which takes place out of doors which I think has the most potential to allow for the delivery or inclusion of EE. In my opinion, the most important aspect of bushcraft is gaining the knowledge that allows you to practice whether as a hobby or a professional instructor. This knowledge is far more important than the kit you own - whether your knife is a £300 and custom made or a cheaper £15 model. 

Practising bushcraft pulls you right into the environment, it can't be carried out in an artificial setting, it can't be separated from the environment and in fact, you could say it is symbiotic with it. Think of the skills that you use to sustainably harvest resources from the woods, coppicing for example. Coppicing has been carried out in the British Isles for hundreds, if not thousands of years and maintains many broadleaved woodlands which exist in the state we see them in today. 

If you are coppicing for shelter poles, material for

construction projects, walking sticks, stocks of firewood to be dried for later in the year or material for carving and whittling you are using your knowledge of when to cut to encourage regrowth, how to cut to prevent or reduce the chance of disease, which species are suitable for coppicing and for your desired use. Also, whether or not you realise it or not, you are actually creating a niche habitat in a woodland.  You are demonstrating a greater understanding of your local environment than most people (as long as you are carrying out your bushcrafting responsibly and sensitively in places where you have permission). But I also feel strongly that although involvement with the natural environment, outdoors, can promote an appreciation of the environment, this is by no means automatic nor, if it does occur, does it always extend to the environment as a whole but possibly only to a very limited area where a person feels they have responsibility or a vested interest. So as a bushcrafter do you only have a vested interest in that small piece of the 'environment' where you have permission to practice? 

I would argue that as bushcraft is such a broad topic which draws on the knowledge and skills of first nations and traditional skills from all over the globe, bushcrafters are in an excellent position to broaden our own minds and the minds of those we teach as to issues beyond our normal stomping grounds. In fact, the following quote sums up a lot of my reasoning as to why bushcraft could be so valuable in EE;

“Within the context of their own lifestyles indigenous peoples have been practising ‘environmental education’ for thousands of years.” (S. Sterling, Sustainable Education,  2001).

So much of what we practice is based on these skills because quite simply indigenous people relied ENTIRELY on their environment for their subsistence and over-hunting, over-fishing, pollution of water sources, the decimation of woodlands or other habitats due to fire, natural disaster or exploitation could literally cost them their lives. However they chose to teach the next generation to respect their environment, it was effective. The Tukano Indians of South America believed in a 'Master of Animals' who would punish them for over hunting. The Australian Aboriginal cultures tell stories of 'Dreamtime' or the creation which teaches lessons about how to live. Every other culture has its unique traditions and beliefs which govern how they live and how they interact with their environments. As bushcrafters, we have a responsibility, and a better opportunity than many to deliver engaging activities outdoors which bring people into direct contact with the environment on a level which means they have to think about how to care for that environment. 

We need to rekindle that indigenous knowledge and pass it on as there aren’t many people now who seek as close a relationship with the natural environment as we enjoy.      

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