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Letters From ~ 4 

Letter from Australia

Wildlife knowledge systems and climate change:

 Threads for a new learning

 Steve Garlick

The devastating Black Summer bush fires of 2019-20 in Australia lead to the loss of an estimated three billion wild animals and 479 humans. You would think this disaster and many other climate-related disasters like it around the world over the past decade would spur a country on to successful efforts in addressing climate change. Not so. Human exceptionalism ensures wildlife are simply not valued in a neoliberal human exceptionalism context. They are not seen as having knowledge agency in the climate debate despite being at the forefront of its escalating impact.

Higher education has provided little leadership and few conceptual tools to assist us in leading the world towards a more sustainable future. We continue to educate society in ways oblivious to the mounting crisis of unsustainability (Orr, 1992). Instead, our                  universities reinforce human exceptionalism in environmental matters with a diet of managerialism, funding demands, competitive ratings predicated on institutional instrumentalism, and path-dependent curricula. This approach has proven spectacularly disastrous in dealing with the planet’s critical concerns (Mathews et al., 2009, Garlick and       Matthews, 2016).

In the book Sustainability Frontiers: Critical and transformational voices from the borderlands of sustainability education, I argued that human centric knowledge generation about the natural world has got us into our current environmental mess. One way forward is to generate new knowledge directly from the non-human, i.e., a wildlife knowledge system from those who have lived in the natural world for millennia.

This is a learning agenda that PASCAL and PIMA and others with a goal of engaged learning might take on.  It is an agenda that embraces cognitive justice and the democratisation of knowledge (Visvanathan, 1997, de Sousa Santos, 2007); rejects human exceptionalism and anthropocentrism (Plumwood, 2007); values transformative encounters with wildlife others in engagement (Derrida 2008); recognises the capability of the non-human (Nussbaum, 2011); and explores avenues for learning through other ways of communication (Garlick & Austen, 2014; Garlick, 2017).

How might such knowledge generation be activated at a community, national and international level? In several publications, I advanced the spatial idea of the ‘ecoversity’ where a community of interested and committed people wanting to contribute to the global climate challenge, even in a small way, pursue learning by engaging nature with values of cognitive justice.

The goal of the ecoversity is to teach us what we are a part of (Sacks 2008) – our environment. It does this by sharing knowledge, identifying local/global problems and solutions, stimulating ethical debates, and challenging unsustainable development and the excesses of transnational capitalism (Mathews et al., 2009).

The notion of an ecoversity is best played out in critical and sensitive places which act as stimulating contexts for learning about environmental integrity and repair (Garlick, 2011). In Australia, such places might be an environment devastated by the fires and it could be a focus for an organisation like PASCAL or PIMA to take the lead in facilitating the engagement required to repair nature by drawing the various threads of knowledge together in a learning environment.

Steve Garlick is an economist, ethicist, wildlife behaviourist.



Derrida, J. (2008). The animal that therefore I am. In D. Wills Trans,. Vol. Perspectives in Continental Philosophy. New York: Fordham University Press.

Garlick, S. (2011). Ability matters. Space, neuroscience, capability, and the university. Paper presented at the European Week of Regions and Cities Open Days, 10-13 October, Brussels


Garlick, S. (2015). Learning from Wildlife Emotion: A Lacuna in Our Knowledge of Environmental Sustainability. Chapter 13 in Selby, David and Fumiyo Kagawa (eds). Sustainability Frontiers: Critical and Transformative Voices from the Borderlands of Sustainability Education. Berlin: Barbara Budrich Publishers.

Garlick, S. (2017). Trans-species Learning, Epistemology, Human Exceptionalism and Wildlife Knowledge Systems. 3rd International Compassionate Conservation Conference, 20 to 24 November, Katoomba, NSW.

Garlick, S. & Rosemary A. (2014). Learning about the emotional lives of kangaroos, cognitive justice and environmental sustainability. Journal of Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism 2 (1).

Garlick, S. & Julie M. (2013). University responsibility in a world of environmental catastrophe: Cognitive justice, engagement, and an ethic of care in learning. Ch 3 in Inman, Patricia and Diana. L. Robinson (eds), University engagement and environmental sustainability. Manchester University Press.

Matthews, J., Garlick, S., & Smith, S. (2009). Ecoversity: Towards a sustainable future. The Journal of the World Universities Forum 2 (3): 113-124.

Nussbaum, M. (2011). Creating capabilities: The human development approach. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Orr, D. (1992). Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world. Suny Press.

Plumwood, V. (2007). Human exceptionalism and the limitations of animals: A Review of Raimond Gaita’s The Philosophers’s Dog. Australian Humanities Review 42.

 Sacks, A. B. (2008).  The university and sustainability: New directions in science, technology and culture. Journal of the World Universities Forum, 1 (2), 93-100.

Santos, B. de S, (ed.) (2007). Cognitive justice in a global world: Prudent knowledge for a decent life. Lanham: Lexingham.

Visvanathan, S. (1997). A carnival for science. Essays on science, technology and development. Oxford University Press.

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