Community perspectives and the politics of water in rural Australia: Rural-regional sustainability education in the Murray Darling Basin

Keywords: sustainability, community, rural, policy, place based


Sustainability is a central challenge facing the future viability of Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) communities in rural Australia.  Faced with environmental uncertainty and its associated community impacts, sustainability has at once been positioned as the path to a prosperous future and a flash point of community conflict. Key to these tensions has been different perspectives on sustainability adopted by various community members and the difficulty of working towards a shared understanding of the term. Drawing upon the first phase of a two-year project exploring education and sustainability in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia, the paper examines different community understandings of sustainability. The differences observed reflect debates about community in rural areas, as well as sustainability in the research literature. We then consider the role of education in collaborative community dialogue about rural-regional sustainability in contexts where sustainability education plays out against broader conflicts over the natural resource of water and its pivotal role in Australia’s economic wealth and social wellbeing.

Author Biographies

Amy McPherson, Faculty of Education and Arts, Australian Catholic University
Dr Amy McPherson is a lecturer in Education Studies at the Australian Catholic University, North Sydney campus. Her research interests focus on progressing critical thought which interrogates the socio-political landscapes of education. Recent research projects include: a study of the relationship between spatiality, embodiment, technology and classrooms; equity and widening participation in education; constructions of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘ability’ in schooling and education for sustainability.
Philip Roberts, Faculty of Education, Science, Technology and Mathematics University of Canberra
Dr Philip Roberts is an Assistant Professor in Curriculum Inquiry/Rural Education at the University of Canberra. His major ongoing research focuses on place, the sustainability of rural communities, and the interests of the least powerful in our society. Philip’s work is situated within rural sociology, the sociology of knowledge, educational sociology and social justice and is informed by the spatial turn in social theory and sustainability.
Natalie Downes, Faculty of Education, Science, Technology and Mathematics University of Canberra

Natalie Downes is a research assistant at the University of Canberra. Her research interests include rural distance education, rural-regional sustainability and curriculum inquiry. This work has a particular focus upon the cultural politics of schooling for rural students. In 2014, Natalie completed her honours thesis on the experiences of parent supervisors of distance education primary school students and graduated with first class honours. She will soon start her PhD focusing on rural distance education.


Armstrong, P., Sharpley, B., & Malcolm, S. (2004). The waste wise schools program: Evidence of educational, environmental, social and economic outcomes at the school and community level. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 20(2), 1–11. doi:10.1017/S0814062600002159
Ballantyne, R., Fien, J., & Packer, J. (2001). Intergenerational influence in environmental education: A quantitative analysis. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 17, 1–7. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600002378
Biesta, G. (2012). Becoming public: Public pedagogy, citizenship and the public sphere. Social and Cultural Geography, 13(7), 683–697.
Bijker, W. (2012). Do we live in water cultures? A methodological commentary. Social Studies of Science, 42(4), 624–627.
Black, A. W. (2004). The quest for sustainable, healthy communities. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 20(1), 33–44. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600002287
Blair, M. (2008). Community environmental education as a model for effective environmental programmes. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 24, 45–53. doi:10.1017/S0814062600000574
Cocklin, C., & Dibden, J. (2005). Introduction. In C. Cocklin & J. Dibden (Eds.), Sustainability and change in rural Australia (pp. 1–18). Sydney, NSW: University of NSW Press.
Collier, G., & Smith, P. (2009). Beyond lip service: A council approach to planning for behaviour change. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 25, 129–138. doi:10.1017/S081406260000046X
Corbett, M. (2007). Learning to leave: The irony of schooling in a coastal community. Halifax, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.
Corbett, M. (2014). The ambivalence of community: A critical analysis of rural education’s oldest trope. Peabody Journal of Education, 89(5), 603–618. doi: 10.1080/0161959X.2014.956532
Corkery, L. (2004). Community gardens as a platform for education for sustainability. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 20(1), 69–75. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600002317
Cormack, P., Green, B., & Reid, J.-A. (2008). River literacies: Discursive constructions of place and environment in children’s writing about the Murray-Darling Basin. In F. Vanclay, J. Malpas, M. Higgins, & A. Blackshaw (Eds.), Making sense of place: Exploring concepts and expressions of place through different senses and lenses (pp. 57–76). Canberra, ACT: National Museum of Australia.
Davila, F., & Dyball, R. (2015). Transforming food systems through food sovereignty: An Australian urban context. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 31(1), 34–45. doi: 10.1017/aee.2015.14
Dryzek, J. (2013). The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Evans, M., & Pratchett, L. (2013). The localism gap – the CLEAR failings of the official consultation in the Murray-Darling Basin. Policy Studies, 34(5), 541–558. doi: 10.1080/01442872.2013.862448
Evans, M., Marsh, D., & Stoker, G. (2013). Understanding localism. Policy Studies, 34(4), 401–407. doi: 10.1080/01442872.2013.822699
Flowers, R., & Chodkiewicz, A. (2009). Local communities and schools tackling sustainability and climate change. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 25, 71–81. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600000410
Green, M. (2008). From wilderness to the educational heart: A Tasmanian story of place. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 24, 35–43. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600000562
Green, M. (2012). Place, sustainability and literacy in environmental education: Frameworks for teaching and learning. Review of International Geographical Education Online, 2(3), 327–346.
Gruenewald, D. (2003a). The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. Educational Researcher, 32(4), 3–12.
Gruenewald, D. (2003b). Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for place-conscious education. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 619–654.
Gruenewald, D., & Smith, G. (Eds.). (2008). Place-based education in the global age. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Harris, C. E., & Barter, B. G. (2015). Pedagogies that explore food practices: Resetting the table for improved eco-justice. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 31(1), 12–33. doi: 10.1017/aee.2015.12
Hendriks, C. M., Bolitho, A., & Foulkes, C. (2013). Localism and the paradox of devolution: Delegated citizen committees in Victoria, Australia. Policy Studies, 34(5–6), 575–591. doi: 10.1080/01442872.2013.862450.
Jickling, B., & Wals, A. E. (2008). Globalization and environmental education: Looking beyond sustainable development. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(1), 1–21.
Lloyd, D., & Norrie, F. (2004). Identifying training needs to improve Indigenous community representatives input into environmental resource management consultative processes: A case study of the Bundjalung Nation. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 20(1), 101–113. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600002342
McLoughlin, L. C. (2004). Is sustainability a breakfast cereal? Public program based research into community understandings of sustainability. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 20(1), 115–127. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600002354
Mitchell, M., Curtis, A., Davidson, P. (2008). Evaluating the process of triple bottom line reporting: Increasing the potential for change. Local Environment, 13(2), 67–80.
Mollinga, P. (2010). The material conditions of a polarized discourse: Clamours and silences in critical analysis of agricultural water use in India. Journal of Agrarian Change, 10(3), 411–436.
O’Donoghue, R. (2003). Indigenous knowledge: Towards learning materials and methodologies that respond to social processes of marginalisation and appropriation in Eastern Southern Africa. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 19, 57–67. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600001476
Powers, A. L. (2004). An evaluation of four place-based education programs. Journal of Environmental Education, 35(4), 17–32.
Redmond, J., & Walker, E. (2009). Environmental education in small business: The owner-manager’s perspective. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 25, 117–128. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600000458
Reid, J-A., Green, B., Cooper, M., Hasting, W., Lock, G., & White, S. (2010). Regenerating rural social space? Teacher education for rural-regional sustainability. Australian Journal of Education, 54(3), 262–267.
Roberts, P. (2014). A curriculum for the country: The absence of the rural in a national curriculum. Curriculum Perspectives, 34(1), 51–60.

Roberts, P., & Downes, N. (2016). Conflicting messages: Sustainability and education for rural-regional sustainability. Rural Society, 25(1), 15–36.
Roberts, P., & Downes, N. (2015). Community and school understandings of sustainability: Survey summary. Canberra, ACT: University of Canberra.
Roberts, P., & Green, B. (2013). Researching rural place: On social justice and rural education. Qualitative Inquiry, 19(10), 765–774.
Salter, Z., Venville, G., & Longnecker, N. (2011). An Australian story: School sustainability education in the lucky country. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 27(1), 149–159. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600000148
Select Committee on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. (2016). Refreshing the Plan. Canberra, ACT: Senate Printing Unit.
Smith, G., & Koernicke, I. (2004). Local environmental risk assessment as a sustainability education tool. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 20(1), 129–136. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600002366
Somerville, M., & Green, M. (2012). Mapping sustainability initiatives across a region: An innovative survey approach. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 28(2), 65¬–77. doi: 10.1017/aee.2013.1
Somerville, M., & Rennie, J. (2012). Mobilising community? Place, identity formation and new teachers’ learning. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 33(2), 193–206. doi: 10.1080/01596306.2012.666075
Strange, T., & Bayley, A. (2008). Sustainable development: Linking economy, society and environment. Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Retrieved from
Tangen, D., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (2007). Environmental education in a culturally diverse school. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 23, 23–30. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600000689
Thomson, P. (2006). Miners, diggers, ferals and show-men: School-community projects that affirm and unsettle identities and place? British Journal of Sociology of Education, 27(1), 81–96.
Vanclay, F., Higgins, M., & Blackshaw, A. (2008). Making sense of place: Exploring concepts and expressions of place through different senses and lenses. Canberra, ACT: National Museum of Australia Press.
Weir, J. (2009). Murray River country: An ecological dialogue with traditional owners. Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Western, L., & Pilgrim, A. (2001). Learning as we go: Catchment management in the urban rural fringe. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 17, 143–148. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600002524
Whatmore, S. J., & Landström, C. (2011). Flood apprentices: An exercise in making things public. Economy and Society, 40(4), 582–610.
Whelan, J. (2005). Popular education for the environment: Building interest in the educational dimension of social action. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 21, 117–128. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600001002
Whitehouse, H. (2001). “Not greenies” at school: Investigating the discourses of environmental activism in regional Australia. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 17, 71–76. doi: 10.1017/S0814062600002469
Whitehouse, H., & Evans, N. (2010). “I am not a greenie, but”: Negotiating a cultural discourse. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 26, 19–31. doi: 10.1017/S081406260000080X
Wilcock, D. A. (2013). From blank spaces to flows of life: Transforming community engagement in environmental decision-making and its implications for localism. Policy Studies, 34(4), 455–473. doi:10.1080/01442872.2013.822703
World Commission on Environment and Development [Brundtland Commission]. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our common future. Retrieved from