Sustainable futures for whom? Towards an education for interspecies sustainability

By: Maria Helena Saari (University of Oulu)

What does cow’s milk have to do with education and sustainable futures? To explore this question we might ask, as environmental education scholar David Orr has done, if education stems from the word “educe”, meaning “to draw forth” or “bring out”, what is being brought out by the connections between the dairy industry and schools?

Image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Dairy is intrinsically connected to education in more ways than farm visits and nutrition education. The European Union continues to promote the consumption of cow’s milk through its School Fruit, Vegetables and Milk Scheme, through which, in the 2019/2020 school year 105 million euros were allocated to cow’s milk subsidies and 145 167 schools and over 19 million school children were reported to take part in the scheme. The consumption of cow’s milk is also promoted through initiatives such as FAO’s World School Milk Day, celebrated in over 25 countries and during which the consumption of cow’s milk is promoted through various activities. These schemes can be seen to frame school children as investments, as future consumers, as the flow of cow’s milk through schools helps maintain the dairy industry. However, we ought to ask to what effects?

Cow’s milk consumption is entrenched in debate surrounding dietary racism, contested health claims, animal welfare and rights, colonialism and sustainability. Yet, dairy has been less scrutinised than the consumption of meat, even though these industries are inseparable. Industrial animal agriculture plays a significant role in the climate crisis and although calls have been made for shifts towards plant-based diets, the number of animals bred for human consumption continues to rise. The latest IPCC report is another alarming reminder of the unsustainable path we continue down, leading us to unliveable futures. All the while we continue to be inundated with repetitive and mantra-like appeals for sustainable development.

Dominant conceptions of sustainability have been widely criticised for reducing animals and nature to resources,reflective of hierarchical anthropocentrism, the erroneous belief that humans are superior to the nonhuman world.  How might we understand sustainability in ways that are inclusive of, and attendant to, our diverse multispecies communities? Here we might find more fitting conceptual tools in what Iris Bergmann has named “interspecies sustainability”, where animals are understood as stakeholders in their own right. Instead of viewing and categorising animals as resources, interspecies sustainability includes animal interests, their wellbeing and flourishing and offers a promising opening for animals to be included in the sustainability debate, rather than being further exploited in the name of sustainability or simply being left as an afterthought.

There has been a growing interest in the shared ‘common worlds’ of children and animals. Under the rubric of school milk schemes, it could be argued that children and animals find themselves in ‘common violent worlds’, where they may never encounter one another, yet their lives and precarious futures are intrinsically connected. These unsafe realities and the difficulty of challenging hierarchical anthropocentrism in educational settings can be seen as reflective of the hostile and oppressive relations we have with other animals beyond school walls.

To better understand these relations, we might turn to the viewpoint put forward by Wadiwel, who has argued that our relations with other animals could be seen from the viewpoint of war, but are often seen as peaceful nonetheless. In his book The War Against Animals, Wadiwel argues that these violent relations have been shaped by the ways in which we humans view ourselves, the institutions and political relations we maintain, as well as our knowledge systems and the stories we tell about ourselves and others. While some may be sceptical of such a claim, viewpoints of war have also been put forth by others, including the Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, who has claimed that we are waging a suicidal war on nature. Deckha has fittingly summarised that claiming we are at war against animals is no exaggeration, as from whatever angle we adopt, the numbers of animals killed are “undeniably obscene”.

If we view human-animal relations from this stance of systemic violence and hostility, how might it affect the way we view education and its role in societal and institutional arrangements that maintain and normalise this violence? If violence is currently the norm and taking us down a path of unsustainability and destruction, how might we begin to understand sustainability and flourishing as akin to striving for peace? Could we imagine and create educational spaces that seek to foster peaceable relations with other animals and what might that require?

The growing field of animal-focused education research has sought to not only problematize the ways in which animals are embedded in education, but to propose alternative ways of doing education that would cultivate more just relations. Urgent calls have been made to find ways to teach and learn to “live responsibly and respectfully on a damaged Earth”. Educational reforms that adequately attend to the planetary crisis have been widely called for, most recently and vocally by the Friday’s for Future movement, yet so far little progress has been made.

In my doctoral research I adopted a multidimensional approach to explore the opportunities and challenges for teaching and learning differently in our multispecies communities. Examining pedagogy, policy and practice, I wanted to explore how animals are represented in and affected by educational policies, what kinds of animal-inclusive pedagogies have been proposed and how they might already be put into practice, with the aim of identifying intersections and possible missed opportunities for collaborative efforts within and beyond education to build interspecies sustainable futures.

What then would an education for interspecies sustainability seek to bring out? Overall, it would entail dismantling the structures of violence, such as school milk schemes, through which schools can be seen to create common violent worlds for children and other animals and building (educational) spaces that foster multispecies flourishing. “Scheme” is defined as “an organised plan for doing something,” as well as “to make clever secret plans to deceive others.” Both appear apt descriptions of school milk schemes. How much longer will we allow these deceptive (and destructive) schemes to continue? 

Image: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

*This blog post is adapted from Dr. Saari’s Lectio praecursoria given at her doctoral defence at the University of Oulu on 10th December 2021. Her doctoral thesis ‘Animals as stakeholders in education: Towards an educational reform for interspecies sustainability’is available here:

Maria Helena Saari (PhD) is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Academy of Finland funded research project CitiRats: From Citizen Science to Non-Anthropocentric Education (2021-2014) at the Faculty of Education at University of Oulu and is currently Co-Leader of the Envisioning Sustainability Research Hub of the Biodiverse Anthropocenes research programme. She teaches environmental education and multispecies childhood studies at the University of Oulu. 

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