How does nature-based education change the way we live?
And why our goal should be regeneration, not sustainability
Our ability to thrive as humans depends on understanding who we are: We are not separate from or superior to nature—we are in fact nature. But it’s not always obvious how that translates into our lives.
For Ashoka Fellow Luis Camargo, founder of Bogota-based OpEPA, it starts with changing the way we grow up. Since 1998, he has been re-connecting hundreds of thousands of young people to nature and building a culture of regeneration across the Americas. Ashoka’s Corina Murafa sat down with him to learn more.
Corina Murafa: You have been mainstreaming nature-based education for nearly 25 years. How have things changed?
Luis Camargo: Our view of nature-based education has always been holistic, but 10 years ago most schools interpreted nature-based education as relevant only to the natural sciences. Fortunately, in the last three- or four-years schools have started to understand that nature-based education concerns all teachers. All subjects need to be included.
Why do you believe nature-based learning can be so transformational?
Most of our planetary problems stem from dysfunctional relationships — with ourselves, with others, and with nature. Our education systems have forgotten about nature. They are still very egocentric and anthropocentric. Fixing our relationship to nature is a pathway for harmonizing our other relationships. Learning experiences in nature have great potential to transform children. To activate this potential, learning can’t just be academic, it also has to be experiential and emotional. Doing that in nature, with its capacity to create magic, we can open the doors for a deeper understanding of relationships in general.
So, in a way, this is about empathy?
Yes. It is about us deeply recognizing and embodying our interconnected and interdependent nature, our Interbeing as Thich Nhat Nahn has called it. It’s about cultivating empathy beyond the human sphere into the living-systems sphere. It’s also about asking “How can I become empathetic with all life? How can I start feeling that I am nature — part of an interconnected and interdependent system?”
But how do we start living this out fully? For example, a CEO might go on a weekend hike and feel connected with nature, and go back to business as usual on Monday, chasing endless growth and profits.
It’s about activating the regenerative capacities in people to act in the right relationship with themselves, with others, and with nature. Environmental issues exist because we’re not in the right relationship with nature and our systems are not in the right relationship with it. This is where the concept of transitioning towards regenerative cultures is really important. Each day, we must ask ourselves if we are acting in the right relation, are our actions working to create or improve the conditions for all life to thrive?
Can you give us an example of regenerative culture and how it works?
Regeneration entails becoming in service of living systems and according to living-system rules. Meanwhile, sustainability is anthropocentric and focused on sustaining our current way of living. Regeneration is made more difficult by our tendency to create walls and rules of separation (i.e. between rich and poor).
Let me give you an example. In Bogota, we created the Network of Mountain Schools. We started weaving schools that would break all these walls of separation. Bogota is a very complex city with diverse social, economic, and political backgrounds. So, we took nature as our framework because it can activate regenerative capacities. Instead of starting from their differences, nature offered a neutral space, as a learning environment that allowed students to realize their commonalities. That’s our starting point.
Have things changed since the pandemic started? Did it bring us closer to regenerative goals or further apart?
Both. I think it has opened the door and a window to heightened awareness of the importance of nature in our lives. A lot of the people that were in long quarantines in cities started realizing that they need to interact with nature — to be outside, even if it’s urban nature. At the same time, green recovery strategies are focused on taking the current economic model and strengthening it, to catch up to what was lost during the pandemic. This worries me.
Because “catching up” means going back to the old normal?
Yes. Whoever is attached to the old paradigm — as most governments and businesses are — will try to hold on to it. Their power is associated with money and with the sort of wealth accumulation that are ruining the planet and generating disparity and inequity. The reality is that if we want to transition from one system to the other, at some point, we’re going to be living in both. So, the question really is: “How can we prepare children and youth to transition faster?”
What’s the answer to your own questions? How can regeneration become the new normal?
Changemaking needs to start from the ground up. During the pandemic and other crises, people realized that they could build their own food systems, for example. They started bringing their attention locally. And that’s part of the solution. We need to shift from globalized development to bioregional and localized development. We need to activate bioregions and localities to start producing and seeing that well-being comes from having good food and healthy communities. If we all did that, systems would change.
This is where the bioregional regenerative development initiatives come in. We’re leading Regenerate Colombia and working with the Regenerative Communities Network across Latin America and the world. We’re creating new models to transition towards regeneration, preparing for the big shift.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity by Marian Ignat.